Imagine living in a banana republic whose charismatic leader rushed through the passing of a $787bn spending bill without giving his supporters or his opponents any time to read the 1,000-plus page publication. It was a matter of too much national urgency for him to permit any scrutiny, yet five months later not much more than 10% of the money has been spent. Of the cash that has been allocated, two-thirds has somehow ended up in counties which voted for the charismatic leader in the last election. What sort of tin-pot third-world country would allow such blatant favouritism?
Welcome to the America of President Barack Obama. On the ground, it's a little bit different from the place you see on television or read about in giddy newspaper dispatches detailing how we are all supposedly enthused and excited by this historic administration. Tomorrow it will be six months and a trillion dollars or so in increased spending since he entered the Oval Office. What a short, strange trip it's been with a leader who's so far evinced much more audacity than hope. How else to classify a man who talks a way better game than he actually plays?
In February, Obama boldly told us the stimulus bill that will doom future generations of Americans to massive debt repayments would, in a deliberately vague turn of phrase, "create or save" four million jobs. With the catchphrase "Anybody seen a stimulus job" having become a standing joke in delis and diners across the country since then, the president now claims to have "saved or created" around 150,000 jobs. Just another 3.85 million to go then.
At the time when he was bullying the Houses of Congress, he also claimed this legislation was desperately needed to prevent unemployment from going past the dreaded 8% mark. Now that it's closing in fast on 10%, he has the brass neck to try to tell us the stimulus is really working because he has "already extended unemployment insurance and health insurance to those who have lost their jobs in this recession". Some logic at work there.
Of course, many took the spin at face value. As they have everything that's come out of Obama's perfectly-formed mouth in the 18 months or so since he became the presumptive Democratic candidate. The cult of personality runs so deep by now that he has truly become the Teflon President. Nothing sticks to this guy.
Nobody cares that he can't speak in public without the use of a teleprompter that he carries around the world with him like a baby's blanky, and routinely mispronounces the names and titles of foreign leaders. Witness his mangling of Russian president Medvedev's surname and his mixing up of Vladimir Putin's past and present positions last week – his funniest flubs since talking about a mysterious and previously unknown language called Austrian or maybe the time he erroneously credited America with the invention of the automobile. The same type of malapropisms for which George W Bush was ceaselessly mocked now go largely unremarked. Strange that.
But different standards apply with this president. During a genuine national crisis earlier this year, Obama still found time to fly to Los Angeles to go on a television chat show and to make fun of the Special Olympics. What harm? He looked so natural joshing on Jay Leno's couch. So smooth and comfortable on camera. What a leader.
These are just the cosmetic complaints of the 47% of Americans (remember them) who didn't vote for this guy last November. There are far more substantive criticisms to be made. Back in February, Obama waved his magic wand and declared he was going to save ordinary Americans who were struggling with their mortgages. In a typically grandiose speech, he announced his $278bn housing rescue plan would "help between seven and nine million families restructure or refinance their mortgages so they can avoid foreclosure". As of this week, just about 20,000 homeowners have been able to refinance and 200,000 more have restructured their payments under the misguided scheme. Only another 8.75 million people to go then.
Obama escapes censure for the routinely enormous gap between what he promises and what he delivers because he is so historic and symbolic a figure, many in the media appear unwilling or unable to do their jobs when it comes to subjecting him to the normal journalistic rigour. Half a year into his regime, the absence of critical evaluation is as stunning to behold as it is potentially damaging to the body politic. What does it say about a country that the television networks appear more interested in getting him to take their star reporters on cringe-inducing tours of the White House rather than seriously examining his performance as leader?
To this point, the only consistent discordant voices have come from the extreme left in the Democratic Party, unhappy he's not imposing a socialist utopia fast enough and/or jailing Bush and Cheney, and from right-wing talk-show hosts. Indeed, the atmosphere of political correctness around Obama is so overbearing that any time a conservative pundit gets too shrill in their criticisms, they are conveniently and ignorantly tagged racist, and the validity of their attacks is then ignored. Meanwhile, previously reputable newspapers and magazines remain distracted, utterly intoxicated by the beauty of the first couple, the cuteness of their children, the newness of their dogs, and the romance of their date nights. If there's one person who's enjoying the blanket coverage of his celebrity (more than a dozen Time magazine covers and counting!) rather than his policies, it might be Obama himself.
The narcissist-in-chief can't let an hour go by without doing something for the cameras. However mundane, the crews are wheeled out to capture the moment. With his love of the limelight and penchant for long-winded speeches laden with generalisations and thick with platitudes, it's like having Bono as leader of the free world. That bad.
"Just because the press is willing to make a fuss of every aspect of your life, you don't have to take them up on it," said Bill Maher, avid Obama supporter and HBO chat-show host in a commentary the other week. "You don't have to be on television every minute of every day. You're the president, not a rerun of Law and Order. Every time I turn on the tv, there's Obama. He's getting a puppy, he's eating a cheeseburger with Joe Biden, he's doing his retard thing on Leno... I get it, you love being on TV."
Living under the first reality-show president might be tolerable if his politics weren't so wrong-headed. This is the man whose genius idea for saving General Motors and Chrysler was to give the United Auto Workers union an ownership stake in the revamped versions of both companies. That would be the same UAW whose stubborn and decades-long refusal to change outmoded work practices and uncompetitive pay scales played a significant role in bringing both corporations to their knees in the first place. The same UAW which has contributed nearly $24m to the Democratic Party coffers since 2000.
Everybody expects naked cronyism from politicians but wasn't Obama supposed to be cut from a different cloth? After all, he campaigned as an agent of change. For starters, there were to be none of the hated lobbyists in his employ. Well, until he decided there were a few he liked too much and simply had to have working for him in his administration. Still, it was a brand new world where nobody with even a whiff of impropriety would be tolerated. At least until half a dozen of his most high-profile appointments, including his treasury secretary, were outed as tax cheats.
There's more too. Apart from appointing 15 ambassadors whose main qualifications to represent the country overseas appear to be having served as some of the biggest fundraisers from his campaign, he has created 33 new czars to make sure his policies are implemented on everything from climate-control to corporate compensation. Problem is these unelected officials have been given such wide-ranging powers that even some Democrats are worried this is an extra-constitutional power-grab too far.
It wasn't Obama's fault he inherited the worst economic conditions for 80 years. However, the mismanagement of the situation and the misuse of it for political gain ("never let a good crisis go to waste" is the administration's motto) will eventually all be on him. Befitting somebody who was receiving so much fawning press, he had record approval ratings for much of the past six months. Lately though those numbers have started to slip as it seems more and more people are cottoning on to the reality of his reign being quite different from the myth.
Just the other day I saw my first bumper sticker containing the words "Obama's Last Day" with the numbers 1 /20/13, denoting 20 January, 2013. That's the date of the next presidential inauguration. If the Republican Party wasn't such a scandal-ridden and leaderless mess, it might be easier to believe he won't win a second term. For now though 1 /20/13 is still something for the unbelievers to cling to. Obama-related numbers that offer the chance of real hope and the prospect of genuine change.