World News America

Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Matt Frei's diary: Poetry and prose

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Close your eyes and think a year back. Oprah and Jesse Jackson welling up in Chicago's Grant Park.

Obama family at the election rally 4 November 2008

The red swoosh across Michelle Obama's dress like the trace of an electoral meteorite that had come to shatter the status quo of American politics. The girls on stage.

The president elect's chin lifted up at Mount Rushmore angle. The gracious words of John McCain.

And, yes, the millions of Republicans, who quietly voted for Obama and congratulated themselves that America had done something that no European nation could ever achieve.

The promise of change. The tingle of history. Can you still feel it? No. Nor can I.

The danger has been to confuse the moment with the man. Barack Obama came to power only in part because of his ability to turn a campaign into a movement, harvest unprecedented amounts of campaign cash and unleash an army of committed foot soldiers.

Independent voters in North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio, the ones that actually make the difference between victory and defeat, were also won over by his sense of caution in perilous times.

While John McCain's response to the economic meltdown - a proposed freeze in the campaign - made him look hot-headed, Obama kept his cool.

Matt Frei in the BBC World News America studio
Whether it's Afghanistan, healthcare reform or choosing a puppy, this man likes to take his time

Having done the razzmatazz earlier in the campaign with the absurd triumphalism of the greek-temple-meets-Oval-Office-backdrop in the Mile High Stadium at Denver, Obama could afford to be refreshingly dull once Wall Street imploded.

It was he, the young firebrand, who now seemed like the designated driver of America Inc. while John McCain and Sarah Palin appeared more like Thelma and Louise, heading over the cliff.

The old saying that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose was only partially true for Obama.

By late summer of 2008, he had already switched to prose. The cautious and calculating pragmatist who now runs this country was beginning to unpeel himself in those heady days.

Obama is not nearly as radical as some on the right like to make out and many on the left liked to think.

His foreign policy resembles the realpolitik of George Bush Senior and his strategy for implementing healthcare reform is far more incremental than Bill Clinton's was.

Whether it's Afghanistan, healthcare reform or choosing a puppy, this man likes to take his time. He is after all a lawyer at heart.

Shattered illusions

It is not the first time that we misjudged a president by the campaign he fought.

Remember all those who were convinced that George W Bush, who scraped into the White House by a Supreme Court whisker and had run as a compassionate conservative, would govern as a centrist in order to heal the wounds of division?

That illusion should have been shattered within weeks. What drove George W was a determination NOT to be like George Bush Senior, not be tarred with his father's wimp label, not to be too patrician and aloof.

George W always felt more in touch with Midland, Texas than with Kennebunkport, Maine. The son was driven by convictions.

He had forsaken Johnnie Walker for Jesus Christ. That takes an iron will.

He saw life and policy through a clearly defined if narrow prism.

The 43rd president was a radical even before 9/11, most notably when he thumbed his nose at Europe with his policies on missile defence and the International Criminal Court.

George W Bush talking to the media at his ranch in Texas
George W Bush often preferred his ranch to the Oval Office

9/11 emboldened him as a conviction politician, who answered - in his words - to "a higher father" and lavishly peppered his speeches with words like freedom and victory.

But reality proved too stubborn for his sweeping radicalism and his grand visions were undermined by his attention deficit disorder.

As Bob Woodward once told me, W's biggest problem was that he never did his homework.

On one level, every president is a reaction to his predecessor.

Obama has tried to be the UnBush just as Bush tried to be the UnClinton and Clinton the UnBush. I get dizzy just writing this stuff!

But perhaps they should all steal more from each other earlier on in their presidency.

Obama, the cautious pragmatist, may frown at his predecessor's clenched-fist "you're-with-us-or-you're-with-the-terrorists" rallying cries or his lofty "we-promise-to-end-tyranny-in-our-time" rhetoric -- but he could do with some of George W's conviction and a bit more of his own poetry.

Pragmatism is a useful tool but it's not a plinth you can stand on, especially when you're pondering whether to commit more troops to a difficult war.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

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