The Australian

By Edward Luce Let's hope that America's first black president has learned from his mistakes. IF anyone had been asked in 1994 to provide a two-year assessment of Bill Clinton's performance, even supporters would have had a difficult time mustering a strong case. Two years into what we now know was Clinton's first term, a fair observer might have described him as inept, overreaching, unpopular and almost certainly a one-term president.

Things, to put it mildly, have not got gone according to plan so far for Barack Obama. To be sure, in his strikingly sombre inaugural address in January last year, America's 44th President warned of the "gathering clouds and raging storms". He added: "No less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land, a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable and that the next generation must lower its sights".

Then, as is his wont, the young President pivoted sharply. Icy currents were replaced by sunlit uplands. He continued: "On this day we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."

If only Obama had been half-right. What went wrong?

The first, and easiest to illustrate, was Obama's tendency to stoke expectations way beyond his capacity to meet them and way after he needed to do so. People in the Obama transition team glibly offered parallels with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, perhaps forgetting that it took a lot longer than FDR's fabled 100 days to push through his most enduring achievements.

Even without the economic crisis, Obama tee-ed himself up to disappoint his swelling army of supporters, hundreds of thousands of whom volunteered for his campaign.

It was excessive for Obama to have promised the oceans would stop rising, and the planet would begin to heal, on the day he took the Democratic nomination the previous year. But it was borderline reckless to promise an end to division and disunity as he took the oath of office.

Obama's self-confidence also served as a provocation to the millions of Americans who wished him to fail.

His second error was to underestimate the severity of the economic crisis. In spite of pushing through a $US787 billion fiscal stimulus within his first days in office and releasing the second half of George W. Bush's $US700 bn troubled asset relief program for the banks, in hindsight we know a great deal more was required to revivify the US economy.

Evidence of the Obama administration's relative insouciance about the direction of the US economy can be found in its first formal budget, which was submitted in February last year and predicted that unemployment would not exceed 8 per cent.

The fact that joblessness topped 10 per cent a few months later and that official numbers understated almost by half the number without jobs because they dropped out of the labour force altogether were perhaps the defining body blows to the Obama administration's credibility.

Obama's declining approval ratings closely tracked the rise in joblessness and remain, like unemployment, in a bad place.

The third, closely related error was to embark on all manner of initiatives that had nothing to do with fixing the economy - the No 1 concern of all Americans, according to every poll taken since Obama took office. Of these, healthcare reform was the most egregious in the eyes of voters. To healthcare could be added the cap and trade bill and attempts at immigration reform. The latter two failed.

It was healthcare, and the manner in which it was pursued, that turned the electorate sour on the administration and the Democratic leadership. Whether it was the backroom deals with the various healthcare lobby groups or the fact that wavering Democrats took the bill hostage to win pork-barrel funding for pet projects in their home states, Americans recoiled at the spectacle of legislative sausage-making.

It confirmed their worst prejudices about the ethics of politicians. And it left in tatters Obama's promise of transforming the way Washington does business.

Many on the Right, of course, did not want any kind of sausage in the first place. But the manner in which it was made offered them a political windfall that helped put life into the emerging Tea Party movement. That movement, which offers no realistic answers to America's deepening structural problems and scorn towards their country's first black President, is now in a position to wreak further damage on Obama's presidency.

Which brings us back to Clinton. Readers may have noticed this essay has not mentioned Obama and the world or any aspect of his foreign policy. There is plenty to say on the subject, some of which is much more positive. But if it was "the economy, stupid" in 1992, then in 2010 it is "the economy, stupid" cubed.

Obama's fortunes, and those of his country, will not principally depend on whether he can close Guantanamo Bay, or push through further nuclear warhead cuts with Russia, important as these goals may be.

Without doubt, they will rest principally on Obama's ability to restore the US economy to growth in the short term and lay the foundations for a new period of sustained growth in the medium.

James Carville, the architect of Clinton's 1992 campaign, once said: "The more I practise at golf, the luckier I get." Clinton got steadily better at the tactical skills of governing as time wore on. The same may be true of Obama. Given the alternatives, friends of America should be wishing him all the luck in the world.

Edward Luce is Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times. This is an edited extract from his essay, published in the latest edition of American Review, published by the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.