OPINION

Who’s afraid of Barack Obama?

US President Barack Obama must frighten many people. Apart, though, from the Americans, who are convinced that he is trying to subject them to a Communist regime and the extremist Muslims who are at war with America, those who fear him more than anyone else must be the leaders of countries across the world. Because Obama, from his election as an outsider and through his policies, has shown that one person can change his country – as long as he or she has the vision, the will and the political skill to do so. Standing next to the American president, which European leaders can feel that they will leave a similar stamp on their country? Who can claim similar courage and skill? Circumstances – the alignment of the stars in the political and social firmament – are a crucial factor in politics and every European leader would like to keep referring to the windows of opportunity that open or close and which determine what can be achieved. But because leaders play the role that they do in shaping circumstances, they cannot simply present themselves as passive observers of the situation, using the lack of opportunity as an excuse. Greece is not the only country in which feckless politicians care more about their personal standing than their country’s – choosing policies and determining the country’s future accordingly. Almost everywhere, the «political cost» of doing or not doing something is measured daily through opinion polls and through the shouting in the news media, and so the ephemeral shapes the policies of governments and opposition parties. We have seen many governments which, despite having strong majorities, froze in the face of negative opinion polls, selling out everything that they believed in and that their voters expected of them. Obama first tried to gain the support of his political rivals. When he failed, he went against both them and popular opinion (as we saw in recent polls) and he achieved the most significant reform his country has seen in the past half century. Whatever else he does, Obama will go down in history as a significant leader. In the best case, he will be remembered as the man who eradicated a huge injustice at the heart of the United States: the fact that the country that spends far more on healthcare than any other tolerated having a significant number of people (over 30 million) without any healthcare at all. Obama’s reforms oblige many Americans to start contributing toward healthcare for the first time and it also puts an end to some of the predatory tactics of insurance companies. Though there will not be a state healthcare fund (apart from the existing ones for pensioners), the state will undertake a greater role in citizens’ treatment. This has provoked furious reaction from those who believe that the state has no reason to get involved in their lives. Banking on this widespread, abstract suspicion of government, and with the support of insurance companies, the Republican Party seems to have gambled its future on unmitigated opposition to the reforms. Polls before the painstaking ratification of the legislation by Congress showed that the majority of voters was opposed to the president’s plan. Several Democratic senators and representatives are threatened not only with electoral defeat (as Obama himself is in 2012) but with violence as well. Only the benefits of a more just health system at a national level will calm the situation and determine just how history will remember Barack Obama, and this generation of Republicans and Democrats. Beyond the words and the fears, though, what is now fact is that America has a new healthcare system. As Obama noted last Thursday: «From this day forward, all of the cynics, all the naysayers, they’re going to have to confront the reality of what this reform is and what it isn’t.» The US political system gives one person – the president – greater power to determine the course of a country than we are accustomed to in Europe. Here, parties (usually in coalitions) play the leading role – and that is why they are so ready to fold when facing immediate popular discontent. This does not mean that the American president is armored against the consequences of his actions nor that he needs to work with political friends and rivals. On the contrary, it means that he is more exposed to the judgment of citizens and history. That is why real leaders scare the hell out of those pretending to lead.