The other Obama

Monday November 12 2012

US President Barack Obama and family arrive on stage after winning the 2012 US presidential election in Chicago November 7, 2012. Photo/FILE

US President Barack Obama and family arrive on stage after winning the 2012 US presidential election in Chicago November 7, 2012. Photo/FILE NATION MEDIA GROUP

By WAMBUA SAMMY [email protected]

On Tuesday he was back in his stead, unleashing foe-deflating eloquence on a crowd too eager to listen as his rivals licked their wounds.

Amid pomp and circumstance, Barack Obama told a victory party hours after his re-election on Tuesday that: “In this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back”.

It was the vintage Obama, most of whom we had not seen during the US presidential campaigns. He was rejuvenated, buoyed by victory in a bruising battle which American commentator Charles Krauthammer writes, was just that:

Victory but not mandate. Especially mandate to raise taxes. To some extent he has point. Obama garnered 50 per cent of the popular vote against his Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s 49 per cent. Call it the narrowest of whiskers but 53 million Americans had voted for the man whose Kenyan roots are traced to Kogelo, Nyanza.

If the battle for the popular vote was decided by a whisker, the vote that counts, the Electoral College one, was decided by a chasm for, Obama won 303 Electoral College votes, 96 way above the minimum of 207 that a winner must have.

But is the Obama who won last week the same man who wowed America and the rest of the world four years ago? To borrow the words of Kenny Rogers, the country music singer from that part of world, did we read him wrong?

When he was being sworn in 2008 Obama’s popularity ratings were at an enviable 68 per cent and Yes We Can, his electioneering slogan didn’t ring hollow. But as the popular vote shows, many Americans wish he is the same man they voted for four years ago. Maybe nothing has changed. May be they didn’t realise that the senator was made of tougher stuff.

Writing in the influential New York Times on Wednesday, Jodi Kantor the author of The Obamas, an unauthorised biography on the first family, comes close to understanding the man.

She writes of an Obama, whose questions to presidential historians paint the picture of a man not given to niceties and the politics of mollycoddling the public but a cold and calculating tactician.

That Obama wanted to know how Ronald Reagan was re-elected in 1984 when the economy was limping or, how Theodore Roosevelt ignored Congress to launch his reforms gave away Obama’s game plan.

He was not going to be a populist and would play hardball in his quest for what he believes to be right.

Inheriting a battered economy and two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from George Bush Jnr, Obama pushed through the congress a $831bn stimulus package when Republicans were calling for tax cuts.

By then his Democratic Party was controlling the Congress but it showed that he was not about to sacrifice his convictions on the altar of political correctness. Bipartisan is a nice political adjective but here is man who didn’t mind the partisan tag as long as the job was done.

The stimulus package was not the last the Republicans would hear of Obama. He would soon embark on a 14-month healthcare reform when foe and friend were more concerned about the ailing economy.

At last, the Republicans, thought, the President had found a rope with which to hang himself by having the middle class pay medical bills for the jobless and the aged. They didn’t have to dirty their hands. The man was suicidal, so they thought.

“When the bill passed without a single Republican vote in March 2010, it was an undoubted tribute to Obama’s perseverance and economic foresight but it was a political disaster,” wrote Tonny-Allen Mills in the Sunday Times. American lawmakers were now rigidly divided and soon Republicans would wrestle the control of the lower House from the Democrats when they lost their majority.

Obama would do the same bailing out, iconic American corporations such as Chrysler and General Motors when his rivals were against the use of public funds to resuscitate businesses already on their deathbeds.

The gamble paid off and the car makers are back on track with GM opening Jeep plants in China. Voters in the US car belt thanked him at the ballot box.

But, America’s first black president was suddenly not the nationalist glue he was supposed to be but a divisive one, showing little interest in populist politics although he was capable of moving crowds into a political frenzy.

This aloofness showed in the last campaigns where pollsters showed him running neck and neck with Romney, a challenger who did not elicit lots of excitement — even from key people in his party and who lost to Obama in his home state of Massachusetts.

Perhaps the most poignant indication of Obama’s dislike for “creative” politics was when he debated Romney in Denver, Colorado. In Obama many saw a man who had given up on his job but they were reading him wrongly as the second debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York proved.

In short, the Obama who will be sworn in for second term in January is not Bill Clinton. Clinton never saw any policy he could not drop as long as the crowds were happy. It paid dividends when he left office with sky-high approval ratings, the small matter of a White House intern by the name Monika Lewinsky notwithstanding.

No politician will deliver on all his promises but Americans will remember the guy who pulled troops out of Iraq, meaning American families would see less of body bags and flag-draped coffins although similar saddening cargo still arrives from Afghanistan from where American and Nato troops must withdraw by 2014.

And lest you forget, Americans will soon be reminded of the guy who ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden when the dramatised documentary, Seal Team Six, hits the streets.


Who takes the biscuit?

The Obama re-election campaign’s offices are Chicago. Its technologically advanced vote-getting operation has wowed members of both parties and the cable news set, winning credit for getting President Barack Obama over the hump in his race against Mitt Romney.

But less than 48 hours after Obama clinched his re-election, his aides were becoming wary that the first draft of history on the campaign was turning into a story of how smart campaign tactics had delivered victory to an embattled president rather than one of how it was all due to the president himself and his policies.

So, for the last time, his campaign team held a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon to push back.

“We have a remarkable staff and campaign,” says David Plouffe, a senior adviser to the president. But, crediting the volunteer army that went to work on the president’s behalf, Plouffe said, “The reason that those people got involved is because they believed in Barack Obama – it was a relationship between them and our candidate.”

Jim Messina, the campaign manager who oversaw the creation of the system that surprised Republicans by getting more Obama supporters to the polls than Republicans had expected, argued that the results should be viewed as vindication for the president’s call for higher taxes on the rich as part of any deal to reduce the deficit. And Obama’s aides noted that exit polls showed that only a minority want to see his health care plan entirely repealed.

Get the picture? (Republicans will surely disagree.) — NYT


As for Mitt Romney…

They predict he will write a book, convinced that the daily diary he kept on the campaign trail would make for a compelling read.

They speculate that he will return to the corridors of finance, where his reputation as a savvy chief executive and investor remains unblemished.

They suspect that he could take on a major role in the Mormon Church, picking up where he left off two decades ago.

In conversations over the past 24 hours, friends, aides and advisers to Mitt Romney have begun turning their attention to an issue that until now they have never had to consider: his next move.

After three decades of remarkably seamless career hopping – from Bain Capital to the Olympic Games, from governor of Massachusetts to constant candidate for president – Romney is now a restless chief executive with no organisation to run.

During a meeting at his campaign headquarters in Boston a few hours after conceding to President Barack Obama, Romney told his staff members that they had just witnessed his last political campaign.

But he vowed, in the words of two people in the room, that “I will not fall off the map.”

For now Romney, 65, seems profoundly absorbed by the present, turning over in his head a public rejection whose depth caught him by surprise.

At a breakfast Wednesday morning for top campaign advisers and donors, Romney marvelled at the Obama campaign’s ability to turn out such a large volume of voters on Election Day, though at times by using strategies that he said had unfairly maligned him.

He did little to hide his frustration and pique: He bemoaned attempts by the president and his allies to characterise him as an enemy of women, singling out advertisements that claimed he opposed contraception and abortion in all cases. That, Romney said, is simply untrue, according to those at the breakfast.

He even took a gentle swipe at the news media, mocking what he said were inaccurate articles suggesting that his oldest son, Tagg, had staged an intervention to fix a tottering campaign and was playing a heavy role in shaping political strategy.

“He will be sifting through this for quite a while,” said Kirk Jowers, a Romney friend. “The question is when the sifting takes a couple of hours a day instead of being all consuming.”

Even his own aides said it was hard to know precisely how Romney, an unsparing self-critic, would respond to a loss that had such a personal dimension. It was his second run for the White House, and he had believed, until the very end, that he was ever so close to fulfilling the dream of his father, George, whose own presidential aspirations fell short in 1968.

Few of them can imagine him following the path of, say, Bob Dole, who traded in the title of Republican nominee to become a lobbyist and a pitchman for Viagra. Or Al Gore, who graciously accepted loss in public, then descended into a private slump, growing a beard and putting on weight before slowly finding his passion in environmental advocacy that won him a Nobel Peace Prize.

“The only door that is closed to Mitt Romney for the remainder of his life is being president of the United States,” said Steve Schmidt, a campaign adviser to Sen. John McCain in 2008. “He can do whatever else he wants to do.”
He had a warning, though.

“Losing a presidential campaign is something you never get over,” Schmidt said. “The question is whether you can move forward without bitterness or rancour.”

Just after conceding, Romney told those close to him that he was anxious about the nation’s financial health under Obama. There will probably be no shortage of lucrative job offers for Romney, who has not taken a steady paycheck since 1999, when he left Bain Capital to run the Salt Lake City Olympics, friends and colleagues said.

“He’s a hot commodity to me,” Julian H. Robertson, a hedge fund titan, said in an interview not long ago. (NYT)
Just how hot became evident in 2008, shortly after Romney quit his first bid for the White House, when Robertson offered him $30 million a year to run his firm, Tiger Management, according to people familiar with the discussions. Romney, who had his eye on a second run, politely declined.

Friends and family members said he had turned down equally eye-popping pay packages from the heads of private equity firms.

Back then, several of Romney’s aides held an improvised career counseling session with Romney in his campaign office. They figured he would run for president again, but threw out a series of suggestions anyway.

Why not run an auto company like Ford or General Motors, they asked. Or start a research group devoted to energy independence, an issue about which he is obsessed.

Today, the car company option seems unlikely, given Romney’s opposition to the federal bailout of U.S. car companies. But aides said that he would be receptive to a high-profile job in the private sector, the advocacy world or academia.

“I know he will do something,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a longtime Romney political adviser. “I just don’t know what it will be.”

Not on his list of likely jobs: punditry. Friends said Romney could not imagine following the well-worn path of defeated Republican candidates to Fox News.

But his friends can envision him pecking away at opinion articles for major newspapers, a passion for Romney, who is known to tap them out on his BlackBerry on the beach or on a plane whenever inspiration strikes.

Turning out a book has become a familiar ritual for Romney, a former English major who prides himself on his writing. He produced “Turnaround,” a look at his role turning around the Olympics, in 2004, and “No Apology,” a political manifesto, in 2010.

There will be a few vacations. During the brunch with donors and aides Wednesday, Romney told an old friend, Fraser Bullock, that he was looking forward to skiing in Utah this winter.

For now, Romney has shown up at his campaign headquarters every day since the election, where he seems preoccupied with the futures of members of his campaign staff. He arranged for them to receive severance pay through the end of November.

His No. 1 priority, so far: establishing a system to organize the 400 resumes of those staff members whose paychecks will run out in 21 days.