When he sang at the inauguration of one-term US President Jimmy Carter, Paul Simon had the chutzpah to choose his song ‘American Tune’, which includes the lines “I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/I don’t have a friend who feels at ease./I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered/Or driven to its knees.”
A lot of people must have been humming that over the last four years, as they watched the first (and maybe only) term of Barack Obama’s time in office. The great black hope, the man with grace and intelligence and eloquence to rival JFK - what has he achieved? The answer is not a lot. He hasn’t stopped the US (like the rest of the world) from plunging into recession; he hasn’t left Iraq in any better state than he found it; he hasn’t brought a proper programme of Medicare into being; and he still hasn’t closed that affront to civil and human rights, Guantanamo Bay.
Being an intelligent man, Obama probably realizes all this himself. If so, he’ll be comforted by the sight of what’s happening in Iowa today. There the Republicans are gathered to begin choosing their man (or – less likely- woman) to oppose Obama in November. The man in front in the polls is Mitt Romney and one of the major problems with him is that he looks too much like a presidential candidate - the looks, the clean-living and of course the money. Unfortunately for him he’s a Mormon, which’ll turn off a significant number of Republicans. He’s also got a record of being too liberal – he now says he’s rethought his position on these matters, but at one point in his career he was open in his support of abortion and gay rights. He’s also not a man to get the blood pumping in Republican veins.
Then there’s Newt Gingrich, a man who could hold his own in a debate with anyone, including Obama; unfortunately Newt is on his third or is it fourth wife, and that kind of thing doesn’t go down well in Republican core-vote territory.
There were other Republican stars that shone briefly – Governor Rick Perry, until he couldn’t remember the third of the things he had very very strong feelins on; there was Herman Cain, until his sexual past caught up with him; there’s Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, who a few weeks ago was predicted as finishing last but has recently surged.
In short, the Republicans, faced with a Democrat president who is deeply unpopular, can’t seem to make up their minds who would be the man to take him on. All those available are seriously flawed in some way, so amazingly in twelve months’ time, a deeply unpopular Barack Obama may manage to hold on to the White House.
If that happens, Americans have one comforting thought. American presidents in their second term of office, free from the fear of non-re-election, sometimes cut free and actually do the things they promised they'd do. It’s a bit like a class that isn’t faced with a tough examination at the end: the fear removed, there’s the possibility of something real and important happening. Or so we may hope. Although don’t forget what Paul Simon sang about hope, above. Maybe that's in the nature of political expectation: it gets driven to its knees by reality.