Barack Obama's success in South Africa cannot mask the failure at home
Barack Obama's address at Nelson Mandela's memorial service was deemed a triumph, writes Peter Foster. But back home people are mainly listing his failures
By Peter Foster, Washington
3:44PM GMT 14 Dec 2013
Torrential rain and the wannabe sign language interpreter notwithstanding, the international audience seemed to be in agreement after the memorial service to Nelson Mandela: Madiba aside, the day had belonged to Barack Obama.
As the first black president of the United States, Mr Obama self-consciously traced his own political origins to the moment, 30 years earlier, when the Mandela story had "stirred something" inside him.
"It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today," was how he put it.
The thrilling narrative arc of that sentence still has the power to enrapture audiences abroad; they see Mr Obama, as he often likes to see himself, as an uplifting symbol of civility and common sense in a bitterly divided world.
Back home, however, such adoration is harder and harder to come by. Perhaps that is why Mr Obama rises so brilliantly to the away crowd, conscious that the home fans are disillusioned with a management style that has put so little into the political trophy cabinet.
He is barely a year into his second term, but Mr Obama is fast becoming like Baroness Thatcher or Mikhail Gorbachev, who were lionised on the international stage but, perplexingly to foreigners, more and more widely reviled at home. Unlike Thatcher and Gorbachev, however, the US president has yet to secure a transformative legacy achievement, either domestic or foreign, from which to take comfort in his old age – beyond, of course, the unique fact of his own presidency.
There is still the tantalising possibility of peace with Iran and the promise of making American health care more equitable, but both remain far from secure.
The disaffection at home is no longer confined to the American Right that reviled him from the start. One poll last week showed Mr Obama's approval ratings at 38 per cent, a record low - the point where the president himself becomes the problem, instead of being the guy with a bully pulpit who can solve them.
Mr Obama has been personally damaged by the rollout of his Obamacare health reforms, not just because of their shoddily built websites, but because his salesmanship of the scheme turned out to be based on, at best, half-truths.
And since the price of winning Obamacare was losing control of the House of Representatives in 2010, Mr Obama has little prospect of any other signature achievement: a grand bargain on America's finances, new gun controls, immigration reforms and climate change legislation all now look out of reach.
Even old hands, who understand how quickly the fortunes of second-term presidents can fade, have been surprised just how rapidly the air has gone out of Mr Obama's tyres.
There were always ideological haters, but after his re-election there were plenty of more moderate, mainstream voices that dared to hope that, with a second term secured, a bolder Mr Obama would emerge. They have been disappointed.
It is not in ambition, but in implementation that Mr Obama's critics find fault. In his eulogy to Mandela, Mr Obama touched on the broader themes of "equality and justice" which he rightly sees are not just the problems of developing nations and dictatorships.
To his credit, Mr Obama has dared to challenge this notion at home, making another powerful speech this month warning that inequality in the US was now a "fundamental threat to the American dream".
But after the speech, after the applause dies away, then what?
One senior Democrat policy maker in Washington, who just a year ago thrilled at the possibilities presented by Obama's re-election, met that question with a hopeless shrug last week. "What now? Not much."
So while the Right peddles ideological pipe-dreams about the invigorating powers of zero-government, and the Left relapses to the politics of envy against the wealthiest "one per cent", Mr Obama is left in the middle to be, as he sees it, the voice of what he calls "common sense".
Historians will debate the reasons why – the raw politics of this era, or his strangely diffident public personality – but increasingly Mr Obama appears on the stage of American life as a mere observer of his own predicament.
As the president himself acknowledged, what a contrast that is to Mandela, who was confronted by a world of intractable differences but managed through a combination of guile and patience to overcome them: "Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done."
Fatally, Mr Obama already gives the impression that his own actions will never rise to anywhere near the level of his supreme articulacy. As someone never said: "Blessed are the speechmakers, for they shall inherit a presidential library and a foundation that bears their name, but not a great deal else."