I suppose it’s inevitable that Brexiters will angrily reject Obama’s intervention, especially his line about Britain being left ‘at the back of the queue’ when it comes to trade. But if they let their annoyance spill over into a general criticism of the president, they will harm their own case. For most Brits still rate him very highly.
Tim Montgomerie accuses him of extreme arrogance, and widens the critique: the grand stirring rhetoric that won him the presidency not only failed to unite America; it fostered a more extreme and angry political culture.
I half-agree: Obama’s exceptional expression of liberal idealism scared his opponents, and provoked them to mobilise. Something similar happened in the sixties: Martin Luther King was in a sense responsible for the rise of the religious right – and Nixon. I think it’s a bit odd to blame someone for expressing a liberal vision with such force that it makes anti-liberals furious.
Of course some of the sheen has worn off since 2008, but most of us Brits are still deeply impressed by Obama’s liberal idealism. We have less cause for disillusion than Americans, because most of us are only dimly aware of the complicated compromises that he has had to make in office. In my part of London there was an air of festivity on the day of his election win – especially at my children’s primary school, which is very racially diverse. In fact I helped the kids make this mosaic to celebrate:
We admire him for being an icon of the ideology of the West – in a way that none of our own politicans are. Of course all our major politicians believe in human rights, liberal democracy, secular humanism, whatever we want to call it. But they cannot articulate this with any passion.
Including Boris. If we’re playing charisma Top-Trumps, Boris does not win even on his own turf. Most of us are only half-charmed by Boris. He appeals to one side of us – our scepticism towards big abstract ideals. But this is not enough. When we hear him say that he has no convictions except for speeding, we laugh along. But we also wonder if that whole act is good enough. Why can’t we have a politician who dares to articulate our core beliefs – in universal moral values, in good politics overcoming evil? Obama is unashamed of this stuff. He is unashamed that it sounds preachy, religious – indeed he has often pointed to the religious basis of such idealism. Imagine the embarrassed guffaws that would emanate from Boris if asked to ponder such an issue.
The Obama-knocking in our press is really a cry of resentment. We resent the fact that we cannot express our own deepest values ourselves. When an outsider embodies them with such style, we have to pretend to ourselves he is a sentimental phoney, or an arrogant imperialist. We don’t really think so. We are grateful that he has embodied liberal idealism this past decade.