LONDON, U.K. — Which of the following is the real Barack Obama?
- The charismatic young Senator who broke the race barrier and promised change for an America that thought he could walk on water.
- The inexperienced, smooth talking, young president who attempted too much and failed miserably to live up to his promise.
- The tough, patient, politician who overcame Republican obstructionism on health care, faced down an arrogant Israeli prime minister and maneuvered the crafty Russians into accepting steep cuts in nuclear weapons.
The correct answer is none of the above, or perhaps more accurately a bit of each.
That's why I give a failing grade to the American news media, which at one time or another in the past 14 months has given us all of these answers to the question of how well the new American president is performing his job.
I am not talking about the wacko commentators on American talk radio and television who seem to live in another world and pronounce President Obama to be a communist, another Hitler, or even the anti-Christ. I mean the widely read political writers and columnists who ply their trade on the dwindling pages of America's daily newspapers and magazines and the pundits who populate the more respectable internet blogs.
American media opinion makers seem to have no patience, no sense of history, and an urgent need to pronounce judgment before facts can be gathered. Perhaps they are a reflection of the nation itself — young, restless, eager for quick and simple answers to complex questions.
My advice to readers of opinion columns is clip them, hold them for six months, and then see how much they are worth. Better yet, don't waste your time and stick to reading real news stories, preferably those written by reporters who actually witnessed the events. If the byline is Washington or New York and the story is about something happening half way around the world, it's not worth reading.
American punditry would be less objectionable if it did not set the tone for the foreign correspondents who cover American politics from Washington. Like foreign correspondents everywhere, they basically steal their stuff from the newspapers and broadcasters of the country they are covering. So when American pundits say President Obama is a weak and indecisive leader, foreign governments may conclude that he is a pushover — like the Chinese who snubbed him at the Copenhagen conference on global warning, the Russians who dragged their feet on arms control, or Prime Minister Netanyahu, who mocked the president's request to freeze Jewish settlement building in the Arab part of Jerusalem.
The real Barack Obama will be judged some day by what he has been able to accomplish — not in his first 100 days, his first year, or any of the other meaningless mileposts that lazy journalists love. In the hackneyed phrase used by old-fashioned television correspondents, only time will tell.
Meanwhile, the European public still thinks President Obama is a superstar and cannot understand why he is vilified by the American right and far right. Opinion polls suggest he is so popular that he would win an election hands down in most west European countries, even though discrimination against racial and religious minorities is still common here.
Europeans are also mystified by the bitter debate in America over health care coverage for all. For more than half a century, universal access to health care has been the norm for advanced western countries — with the glaring exception of the United States. Europeans not only enjoy full access to health care. They spend far less on it than Americans, and statistics on longevity and disease death rates show they generally get better outcomes. No one calls it “socialized medicine” here.
To give you an idea of what Europeans think about America's exceptionalism, look at this comment from an opinion column on the health care issue which I was shocked to read last month:
“America is, at heart, a selfish country; the principle that the wealthy should pay to take care of the needy has never taken root.”
That's not a quote from some left-wing, anti-American rag. It's from the decidedly right-wing Daily Telegraph, which supports Britain's Conservative Party.
It shows you how far apart Europe and America are on public attitudes to health care. Americans' opinions may be changing now, but we will have to wait for their reaction when they see how the new law actually affects them. Only time will tell.
If Winston Churchill were alive today, he might say, as he reportedly did when the United States joined the war against the Axis Powers: You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing … after they've tried everything else.
Tom Fenton writes about media for GlobalPost.