President Barack Obama wipes the sweat from his face after speaking at a fundraiser on the eve of his 50th birthday. Photo AP
For many men, turning 50 can be a day of reckoning, marked by greying hair, a slowing step and the wistful recognition that they are ageing and no more young as they wish to be.
President Barack Obama woke up on his 50th birthday (he was born on 4th August 1961) with greying hair, but a wife who still finds him “cute”. He said recently that despite the toll his job is taking on his appearance, the First Lady “still thinks I’m cute, you know”. He then paused and asked: “I guess that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”
President Obama, whose youth and relative inexperience were used against him in the 2008 election, has aged visibly, most noticeably in his hair colour, now less salt-and-pepper than a generous dusting of salt. After 2½ years in which he soldiered through the ”Great Recession” and dispatched a SEAL team to assassinate Osama bin Laden, this president stopped seeming young a long time ago.
The birthday party filled a giant Chicago ballroom with guests paying up to $36,000 to help his re-election bid and show that he can still raise millions of dollars in a single evening. As the president celebrated his birthday, a newly released Treasury report revealed US gross debt shot up $238 billion to reach 100 percent of gross domestic product after the government’s debt ceiling was lifted.
A day before, the Treasury had to add more than $200 billion of commitments immediately after President Obama signed into law an increase in the debt ceiling.
With the latest borrowing, the United States joined a small group of countries whose public debt exceeds GDP, including Japan (229 percent), Greece (152 percent), Jamaica (137 percent), Lebanon (134 percent), Italy (120 percent), Ireland (114 percent) and Iceland (103 percent), according to figures provided by the International Monetary Fund. The last time US debt exceeded its annual economy was in 1947 just after World War II.
For the first time the United States’s credit rating was cut when Standard and Poor’s lowered it from AAA to AA+, citing the country’s looming deficit burden and weak policy-making process. The US has held the S&P rating triple A since 1941.
The downgrade has been a symbolic embarrassment for Mr Obama, his administration and would most likely lead to a spike in US interest rates, making debt payments more pricey and hurting Americans holding flexible-rate loans – anyone carrying credit card debt, or seeking a car loan.
Meanwhile, the White House cancelled fundraising trips to New York and California because of the US debt crisis but Chicago was different: the president’s homecoming on the occasion of his half-century stayed despite a crescendo of Republican complaints about flying half-way across the country in Air Force One while the nation writhed under a mountain of debt.
He was due to speak at three fundraising events, all at the legendary Aragon Ballroom from which a tunnel is said to lead to the nearby Green Mill Bar once favoured by Al Capone.
At the first event, aides said, Mr Obama spoke by video to more than 1,000 “house parties” hosted by registered supporters across the country, each required to recruit 50 more as the price of their live feed from Chicago.
At the second fundraiser, dinner was served to a few hundred supporters paying from $500 to $35,800 each. At the third, a crowd of thousands was entertained by Jennifer Hudson, Herbie Hancock, and OK Go, an alternative rock band.
Across the street, Tea Party activists were planning a less festive “jobs bash” to draw attention to the 9.2% percent unemployment that threatens to curtail his presidency before a secon term. The Tea Party movement, which made strong gains in last November’s midterm elections, pressed Republican House Speaker John Boehner to stand firm on spending cuts and against any hike in taxes.
Representative Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favourite who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, opposed the package, saying it “spends too much and doesn’t cut enough”.
The success of Tea Party-backed lawmakers in defining the terms of the debt debate in Washington has further cemented the movement’s identity as part of a broader conservative drive for deep spending cuts, lower taxes and smaller government. They want President Obama to leave the presidency.
On television, the Republicans’ leading challenger, Mitt Romney, broke cover after weeks of near-total silence on the US debt crisis to broadcast an advertisement accusing President Obama of presiding over a 48% percent rise in unemployment in his hometown, which matters more nationally as well.
Meanwhile, Obama turned his attention to reclaim the initiative on the economy after having ceded considerable ground to the Republicans in the debt ceiling fight which angered many of his supporters who wanted tax cuts for the rich people. The debt deal has sullied Obama’s image to independent voters.
He said: “Growing economy is not just about cutting spending. That is not how we are going to get past this recession. We are going to have to do more than that”.
He shifted quickly to pushing Congress to adopt a raft of measures to stimulate the flagging economy, including extending the payroll tax suspension for workers, beefing up benefits for the unemployed, approving trade agreements and investing in infrastructure projects. But given the polarised climate on Capitol Hill, winning legislative approval for his initiatives will be much more challenging.
Heading into an election year in 2012, Obama’s advisers say that he will be able to point to his role in the debt negotiations as proof of his ability to be a mature, responsible leader who is able to rise above the partisan fray in Washington. David Axlerod, one of Obama’s closest advisers said the negotiations could buy him credibility for his other economic proposals.
On his 50th birthday, President Obama did not wish to have deep divisions among his supporters and in the battleground states, but his erstwhile supporters rejected the debt-deal with the Republicans.
However Obama defended his overture, saying “Voters may have chosen divided government but they sure did not vote for dysfunctional government.” Despite all that, if the measures taken for boosting the economy don’t produce results over the next 18 months, Obama may turn out to be a one term president like Jimmy Carter and the first George Bush.
Barrister Harun ur Rashid Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.
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