Obama’s Avatar Moment

One year ago, Barack Obama was elected captain of the Titanic — er, I mean, president of the United States.

It’s an understandable slip. Last year, the waters seemed to be rising on all sides. The U.S. economy was in a mess, and the government was rolling in debt. We were involved in quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as an open-ended “war on terror.” Our image in the world was about as low as you could get. And if that wasn’t bad enough, because of climate change the waters were quite literally rising all around us.

Many of us were rooting for the new president. But we also had a sneaking suspicion that, like other handsome leading man Leonardo DiCaprio, Obama might go down with the ship.

During the last year, the president rolled up his sleeves and got to work on the ship of state. He went down to the engine room to try to get the economic engine working again. He organized the infirmary staff to provide emergency health care to more of the ship’s passengers. He tried to enlist the able-bodied in the necessary jobs of fixing the ship’s infrastructure.

Many passengers have taken heart from the hard work of the new, sober captain. But others fear that he’s done little more than rearrange the deckchairs. Columnist and economist Paul Krugman, for instance, is “pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama, who seems determined to confirm every doubt I and others ever had about whether he was ready to fight for what his supporters believed in.” And indeed, if you look out the porthole, the situation still looks bleak: economic mess, unprecedented debt, climate change unabated, and that great sucking sound still coming from those quagmires.

Same shipwreck, different captain.

On Wednesday, our captain will address the passengers. Many of us still have that sinking feeling, particularly after the recent election in Massachusetts. What can the captain say to give us hope and believe in change once again?

First things first: The president has to change the metaphor. Titanic was so 1990s. Barack Obama needs a new blockbuster.

At his upcoming State of the Union, as I recently told Eleanor Clift of Newsweek and which she published in Four Ways Obama Can Win Back Liberals, the president needs an Avatar Moment. He can’t go with the same old, same old. He has to transform his presidency as profoundly as James Cameron has shaken up the movie industry with his film Avatar. He needs to reenergize his base, get people excited again.

Of course, it would be great if the president borrowed from the themes of Avatar as well. Just imagine if Obama announced that we were closing all overseas military bases because they wreaked havoc on indigenous people, that we were redirecting money from the military into a green economy that could prevent the Earth from becoming a lifeless rock, that we would stop ruthlessly extracting underground resources (unobtainium, oil) regardless of the consequences.

Oops, sorry, I was wearing those rose-colored 3D glasses. When I take them off, I see that Obama never was that radical, alas. Reports of the president’s proposed three-year freeze on domestic programs — without touching the Pentagon lockbox — indicate just how Blue Dog he can be. How on earth does he think that such a freeze will get people excited again?

There’s still time for Obama to change course. Within the tight navigational limits that he observes, here’s what the president could do.

He should take the fear factor away from the tea-baggers by clearly identifying the great threats we face: unemployment, a broken health care system, crumbling infrastructure. He must steal their populist fire by singling out the bankers, insurance company executives, and unresponsive bureaucrats as the obstacles in our way. He must mobilize a wide range of resources — public, private, Pentagon — to address the threats and equalize the burden. He must reorient the debate by being bold, confident, and transformative. The Republicans under Bush didn’t need a filibuster-proof Senate majority to run America into an iceberg, and Obama doesn’t need one either to keep us all from drowning.

And foreign policy? Most Americans want their country to be a number-one box-office smash: rich, powerful, successful. It’s not easy to sell them on modesty and restraint (as Jimmy Carter famously discovered). The president should at least focus on the Oscars that matter — best economy, best health care system, best environmental standards — rather than the dubious honors of heftiest military spending or number of overseas bases. It’s not only Americans who worry about the health of this country. Billions of people who didn’t vote in the U.S. elections are nonetheless affected by U.S. policies. They, too, have hopes and want change. The president should remember this global audience as he prepares his State of the Union address.

As with Avatar, the whole world is watching.

Grades Still Coming In

This week the president’s grades arrived on climate policy, the global economy, and his approach to Honduras. He’s still averaging a low C.

His best mark was in climate policy. The president attended the recent Copenhagen meeting and has talked about the serious threat of global warming. But as Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Daphne Wysham points out, “The challenge remains: to push the Obama administration to support an adequate and unconditional U.S. contribution beyond existing development aid spending, to shift the global climate fund’s sourcing from carbon markets to a financial transaction tax and other mechanisms, and to house the new body in the United Nations and not the World Bank.”

On global economic policy, meanwhile, the president has tried to have it both ways. “On the positive side, the president did not expand the failed ‘free-trade’ agenda,” writes FPIF contributor Sarah Anderson. “Trade officials did not twist arms on Capitol Hill to secure approval of deals negotiated by the Bush administration, nor did they pull out the stops to break the impasse at the World Trade Organization (WTO). However, Obama has expressed a desire to conclude the WTO talks. And in December, he reportedly told congressional leaders he wants to advance the pending bilateral agreements. Harmless lip service? Hard to tell.”

Finally, on Honduras, the president received his worst grade: D. Despite starting out well by condemning the coup, FPIF senior analyst Mark Engler explains, the administration “bombed the final exam,” namely the November 29 presidential elections. “Shortly after brokering a deal designed to pressure the Honduran Congress to reinstate Zelaya and allow him to serve the end of his term,” Engler writes, “Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon reversed himself and declared that the United States would recognize the elections even if Zelaya remained out of office. And that is exactly what happened.”

Africa Outlook

Last year wasn’t so great for U.S. policy toward Africa, either. In our Africa Policy Outlook 2010 report, published with Africa Action, we look at U.S. policies across the continent, from AFRICOM and foreign aid reform to climate and trade policy. We also zero in on how Washington did or did not change course in its approach to Uganda, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“In 2009, Washington flat-lined funding for HIV/AIDS, resuscitated and empowered the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and tripled the budget for the Military Command for Africa established under President George W. Bush,” we write. “These policies all contributed to further entrenching poverty, the leading threat to human security, as well as U.S. national security in the region.”

In Haiti, meanwhile, the Obama administration is saying all the right things, but giving too much authority to the Pentagon. “President Obama made all the right commitments to the Haitian people, promising emergency assistance and that we would stand with them into the future,” writes FPIF contributor Phyllis Bennis. “He made clear that it is indeed the role and responsibility of government to respond to humanitarian crises, and that’s a good thing (even if he also anointed his predecessors to lead a parallel privatized response). But the reality is, on the ground, some of the same problems that we’ve seen so many times before have already emerged, as U.S. military forces take charge, as the United Nations is pushed aside by overbearing U.S. power, as desperate humanitarian needs take a back seat to the Pentagon’s priorities.”

Finally, the media has been casting around for a suitable villain on which to pin the blame for the failures of Copenhagen. “As the villain of the continuing climate drama, Washington has been replaced in much of the media by Beijing,” writes FPIF columnist Walden Bello. “China did make mistakes in Copenhagen, but the media portrayal of it as the spoiler of the climate change negotiations is neither accurate nor fair. Like Hamlet, Shakespeare’s conflicted Prince of Denmark, China was caught in multiple crosscurrents in Copenhagen. Its failure to manage these led to one of its biggest diplomatic setbacks in years.”

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.