In the last two months, I have been in eight American cities — Boston, New York, Washington, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Phew! I am left with several sentiments.
First, if you have to travel from city to city in the United States, you would do yourself a favour by finding a way of journeying by train. But, for all the misery of air travel in America, when you get to your destination it can still blow your socks off. The lakeside architecture of Chicago. The sight of Puget Sound in Seattle. Park Avenue in New York on a fine late spring morning. They are all, to borrow from Frank Sinatra, “my kind of town”.
What is surprising for a European at the moment is the relative optimism in all these cities. Yes, the economic news has been and remains grim. Much of the automobile industry is bust. House prices remain pretty flat. Unemployment and the budget deficit are soaring. But there is not the same sense of gloom that envelops you in Britain and much of Europe. My guess is that much of this is the result of traditional American ebullience: the view that what goes down will bounce back up.
But there is another factor at work.
We often talk — a good Marxist point — about the impact of economics on politics. But what about the impact of politics on economics? That is what I believe you see today in the US. The economy may look bad, but the president looks great. Despite the ubiquitous efforts of Fox News, Barack Obama dominates, enthralls, and enthuses the audience of American voters. He is, as one American commentator calls him, The One.
Obama seems to have every political talent, and he passes the character test too. His wife is a star in her own formidable right. So, while the economic numbers may look bad, the country’s political leadership looks great. And if you’re an American, you observe other countries where people say, “If only he was ours.”
I am a fan myself: a fan with two worries. First, what happens if politics does not trump economics, and Obama’s policies don’t start to produce a recovery? If there are no signs of economic recovery by the end of the year, the polls may start to turn. Obama is smart enough to understand this. So why does he take quite so much on his own shoulders? Every day, on every news bulletin, he is out there swinging. He might argue that he has to be. There are so many issues, from healthcare reform to the Middle East, that need his attention. I just worry about the boredom factor. If you assume that governing is like campaigning — that you have to be on top of the debate, all the time — can you really anticipate a long shelf life? Don’t you risk becoming, even if you are smart as hell, too much of a good thing?
I hope I am wrong. Barack Obama is a star. The world needs one. But it needs one who continues to shine brightly for several years to come.
Chris Patten is Chancellor of Oxford University and former European Union Commissioner for External Relations