The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Online

By Tom Switzer

The Obama phenomenon has imploded. Expectations were absurdly high five years ago, when Barack Obama was inaugurated 44th president of the United States. Today, however, Americans are bemused by how it all went wrong. The Economist reflected the conventional wisdom a few weeks ago in its cover story with an image of Obama sinking. The headline: "The man who used to walk on water."

The US economy remains sluggish; the national debt is breathtakingly high and the vacillation and ineptitude over Syria has damaged US credibility and prestige. And Obama's signature policy, the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as "Obamacare", is turning into his own carbon tax at home. The President's approval ratings have crashed to below 40 per cent, his lowest ever, and a majority of people think he is untrustworthy. It was not supposed to be like this, but the fact that it is calls for some explanation.

Left-liberals and Democrats blame Tea Party ideologues for obstructing Obama's agenda. But although several conservative legislators have overreached in the budget negotiations that culminated in last October's government shutdown, Republicans control only half of one branch of government. They cannot be blamed for Obama's big spending and interventionist policies, which have made the US a more regulated society, stifling initiative and discouraging work.

Meanwhile, conservatives and Republicans blame Obama's lurch to the left in a centre-right nation. But he was comfortably re-elected on a liberal platform in 2012, and demographic trends indicate that public attitudes are becoming more progressive — from abortion and gay marriage to immigration and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

Moreover, the right-wing criticism fails to put Obama's presidency in the context of his predecessor's legacy. I was a registered Republican in the 1990s when I worked in Washington. But I have no brief for George W. Bush. His reputation is tainted by two costly wars, big spending policies and the Federal Reserve's housing and mortgage mania, which led to soaring debt, budget deficit and the financial contagion. Obama inherited that record, which handicapped his presidency from the outset.

A more persuasive explanation for the US's angst might be found elsewhere. This is that the backlash against Washington has less to do with ideological overreach of either Obama or his opponents and more to do with a crisis of confidence that stems from expectations about America's future that no president or Congress can meet.

For generations, Americans believed their nation had a special mission to regenerate the world in its own image of democracy.

This vision was echoed in the idea of the ''American century'', which shaped the national consciousness in the post-war era, when the US enjoyed an almost absolute supremacy in world affairs. The collapse of Soviet communism and end of the Cold War reinforced the perception of US exceptionalism.

But a concatenation of events and circumstances from recent times — Iraq, Afghanistan, political scandals, deficits, debt, sub-prime mortgage crisis, diminishing net wealth, the decline of US global pre-eminence and the rise of a more pluralistic world (especially China's economic success and influence) — has undermined the confidence of the sole remaining superpower. Many Americans are in an increasingly foul mood: polls consistently detect a widespread sense that the nation is heading in the wrong direction.

In 2008–09, Obama's clarity of purpose was motivated by a nostalgia for the national mission. And just as Americans had endorsed Bush's crusading war on terrorism after September 11, 2001, they embraced Obama's optimistic vision of change and renewal. But in the five years since, he too has failed to meet the expectations the public, the media and he himself set. The US will remain the world's most powerful nation for the next generation or longer. But it will not enjoy the kind of global supremacy it held in the aftermath of World War II. Nor is it likely to command the unrivalled power and prestige that accompanied the so-called unipolar moment of the early 1990s.

The danger of US exceptionalism is that it discourages compromise and flexibility, and encourages a sense of omnipotence.

If US leaders do not prepare the nation to come to grips with a sense of limits abroad, and reorder priorities in favour of domestic affairs, they risk leaving themselves open to sad surprise in an era where not every option is available and resources are not unlimited. Despair and frustration could continue to aggravate political sensitivities. To the extent that this is true, Obama's problems are a symptom of America's crisis of confidence, not its cause.

This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Online