No. 7

Hail to the Chief on Hold

Stone the crows. After all the anticipation President Obama has delayed coming to see us. And he will not stay as long as expected. This is very inconvenient indeed. It has mucked up parliament’s schedule. Ponderous pundits who had gone to all the trouble of changing “Bush” to “Obama” in the op eds they wrote in 2003 will have to tone down the gush about the closeness of the relationship. And the collection of courtiers who won’t be meeting him will have to keep telling their stories about what they said to President Clinton, what with the way nobody admits to knowing George Bush anymore.

But while initial White House confusion over when, or whether, he would come reflected an absence of organisation that would never have occurred on Leo McGarry’s watch, I am not surprised he is still coming. Perhaps I have touch of the Pollyannas. But, on no better basis than reading a bunch of books for a piece on the 2008 presidential election in the next Sydney Institute Quarterly, I reckon Barack Obama is a bloke who does what he says he will do.

At the moment he has an excellent reason for staying in Washington. A win on healthcare will improve Democrats’ chances in the mid-term elections. Obama, understandably, does not want to be away until the argument is over.

Of course, this does demonstrate that for all the talk of the importance of the alliance Australia does not matter much. We play the part of a minor member of the Delian league to the Americans’ Athens. Sure, they might send in the triremes if we were really in strife, but Pericles is not going to visit when there is a crucial vote in the assembly.

Still, for anybody brought up to believe accepting an invitation obliges you to show up, this trip mattered. My guess is that in the 30 seconds Obama spent thinking about Australia on the weekend he decided he had to come.

For Obama just to ignore us would not fit the image offered in the biographies and election histories which present him as a bloke not burdened by modesty but who worked remarkably hard to honour campaign commitments.

In the early stages of the primaries he turned up at events where few electors were expected. And he always put an effort into his speeches that demonstrated he actually cared what audiences, not journalists covering the campaign, thought.

The main reason why Obama beat Hillary Clinton for the Democrat nomination was his superior strategy in the primaries. The way he did not act as if the nomination was his by right, as she did, helped.

He beat John McCain in the general election on the drover’s dog principle. Given the mess President Bush was leaving, and the all but universal assumption that Senator McCain did not have a clue about the economy, just about any half way decent Democrat would have won.

However, the But the way Obama always appeared to be a grown-up helped. Nor was his an image for the cameras a problem; campaign coverage is a spiritual x-ray always illuminating candidates’ true characters.

And grown-ups do what they say they will do.

I have not got a clue whether office has changed Obama. It would not be surprising if it had. The pressures of the presidency are not what they were when the risk of nuclear war was a daily reality. But it still must be the hardest political post in the world.

And as moral failings go, cutting short a trip to Australia is not so bad.

But my guess is that Obama understands that he is as only good as his word, and that he said he would come and he will.

I hope he does, if only for the sake of all the old fashioned activists who blame George Bush for everything they did not like about the world. The 43rd president accepted an invitation and turned up. It would drive the Bush bashers nuts if the 44th didn’t.

'2012