[Viewpoint] Obama needs to find lost swing

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[Viewpoint] Obama needs to find lost swing

Three years after newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama made his rousing inaugural speech, the United States is running along a path of depression and despair, rather than the path of change and hope he sought.

The speech, given on Jan. 20, 2009, served as a call to work together and battle on in a time of economic hardship. It cemented Obama’s iconic status and reminded people that they were the masters of their own destiny, not the other way around.

“America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words: With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come,” the president said, to wild applause.

But the public is fickle, and its sentiments change easily.

This struck me the other day as I was driving from Virginia to Washington via the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which lies along the left side of the Potomac River and is a strikingly beautiful sight in the early morning hours.

However, as I cruised along Constitution Avenue, past the United States Institute of Peace, this pleasant feeling quickly gave way to one of perplexity as I saw a Caucasian man in dirty rags holding up a signboard emblazoned with the word “help.” To me, this scene encapsulated just how bad things have become for the U.S. economy.

Meanwhile, about two weeks ago, an advertisement appeared outside a commercial complex in Centreville, Virginia. In a desperate bid to attract tenants, it was offering the first month rent free. Despite this, half of the rooms still had “for rent” signs up.

While a faltering economy is a serious problem, a public that has lost hope is even worse.

In a public opinion poll taken in January, about 40 percent of respondents said the U.S. economy would improve within one year, but this fell to 26 percent in last month’s survey.

As for Obama’s approval rating, it also dropped to 39 percent last month, the lowest rate since his inauguration. The New York Times and the Washington Post are now busy analyzing what exactly has gone wrong.

But Obama has taken a different tack, appealing to democratic sentiment as he tours the Midwest by bus. He has criticized Washington’s politicians and Congress for ruining negotiations over the national debt deal, but as he continues to blame others, voters are showing their disappointment.

Obama’s early promise - of pursuing change and creating hope - seems to have evaporated, which may explain why his approval rating has fallen behind that of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential hopeful.

The question now is: Will Obama be able to find a breakthrough and win back voters? Since President Franklin Roosevelt, four presidents have attempted to be reelected at a time when the unemployment rate stood above 6 percent. Among them, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush failed, with only Ronald Reagan succeeding. Reagan did it largely by filling people with hope.

One year and three months ahead of the next U.S. presidential election, the unemployment rate in the country stands at 9.1 percent. At this point, Obama could go either way, following in the footsteps of Reagan or Carter.

Thomas Friedman, the celebrated author and New York Times columnist, compared Obama to the world’s leading golfer recently. “He’s Tiger Woods - a natural who’s lost his swing,” Friedman wrote. “He has so many different swing thoughts in his head, so many people whispering in his ear about what the polls say and how he needs to position himself to get re-elected that he has lost all his natural instincts for the game. He needs to get back to basics.”

*The writer is a Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Park Sung-hee
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