Tag Archives: Obama

Great expectations

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

A man who knew what power words can have, 18th-century English author Samuel Johnson, said: “As I know more of mankind I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man, upon easier terms than I was formerly.”

Coming 300 years after Johnson’s birth, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to US President Barack Obama confirms the potency of words and is evidence of a global society, which, after enduring demoralizing disappointments, is willing to embrace someone whose intentions are good even if he’s done little to back them up.

Similarly, in our corner of the world, Prime Minister George Papandreou is riding a wave of popularity thanks to the energetic manner in which he has approached the task of transforming Greece – but mainly because of the poor performance of the previous government.

The Nobel committee’s surprising announcement last week has provoked real debate around the world. In Europe, the reaction has ranged from mild surprise to concern that this will place an extra burden on Obama’s shoulders. In the United States, it was difficult to find anything but disbelief and derision.

“A Nobel for nothing,” said the Washington Times in its editorial; “A wicked and ignorant award” was Peggy Noonan’s take in The Wall Street Journal; and “A Nobel Prize for Moral Posturing” was the title of an article by Robert Tracinski, the editor of the Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.

Worse was to come for Obama when the political satirists and talk show hosts got hold of the news. Obama is already becoming a figure of fun among not just right-wingers but comedians as well, who prey on his inability to live up to the great expectations he created. “That’s pretty amazing, Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Jay Leno. “Ironically, his biggest accomplishment as president so far: winning the Nobel Peace Prize.”

The award challenges us to ask whether we should respect our politicians for their intentions or just their actions. The ensuing outpouring of frustration raises the question of whether we are justified in turning against the same politicians when their actions fail to match their intentions.

athens11These are questions Greeks should be considering at the moment. As Papandreou prepares to unveil his government’s policy program, voters must think about whether the PASOK leader should be applauded for his lofty ambitions or whether praise should be put on hold until at least of some of these goals are achieved.

There’s a fine balancing act involved here. Clearly, actions are ultimately what counts but they’re not enough on their own. Papandreou must set out bold intentions because it’s the only way he can unite people behind a common goal and it provides the measure by which the electorate can later judge him and his government.

To what extent we buy into these aspirations is what will determine our reaction when they’re not met. But that’s exactly the issue – we know they will not be met, at least not in full. Yet, like so many American columnists in recent days, when we experience reality getting in the way of political dreams, we react like a consumer who gets home and realizes that the plasma TV he bought is actually the screen for a shadow puppet theater.

Criticism of our politicians is a necessary part of our democratic system – its lifeblood, in fact – but accusing them of being false prophets is a bit rich, given that voters – not to mention the media – are now as savvy at political games as the men and women who play them.

If Papandreou’s ambitious agenda turns out to be a big act and the only award he’s in contention for is an Oscar for his acting ability, then he should be criticized. But those who take on this task while claiming their hopes have been shattered will be hypocrites, because we all know that these are expectations, as Johnson wrote, “created not but reason, but by desire” and which require “the common course of things to be changed, and the general rules of action to be broken.” We have come to expect some pandering and play-acting from our politicians. It needn’t be part of our repertoire.

“I know not any thing more pleasant, or more instructive, than to compare experience with expectation, or to register from time to time the difference between idea and reality,” wrote Johnson. “It is by this kind of observation that we grow daily less liable to be disappointed.”

It might be wise to heed his words, even if there is no award for doing so.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 16, 2009

All hail the chief

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

George Papandreou took a leaf out of Barack Obama’s book by setting targets for his first 100 days in office – but even the US president would have been impressed by the dynamic start that the PASOK leader has made to his premiership, naming a youthful cabinet, displaying an unprecedented level of openness and holding talks with Turkish officials.

Following on from the inertia of the final days of the New Democracy government, it wouldn’t have been hard for the new administration to seem like a team of over-achievers. But there have been some genuinely positive signs in PASOK’s first week in government; signs which suggest that Papandreou and his team have identified weaknesses and are intent on fixing them as quickly as possible. Of course, whether they manage to is a completely different story.

Papandreou’s first chance to impress was with the announcement of his cabinet. To a large extent, he made the positive impact he wanted. The fact that roughly two thirds of the members of the new government have not served before, and therefore are not tainted by previous failings or misdeeds, is a sign that the new prime minister wants to stick to his promise of renewal.

Also, the presence of nine women (a record for Greece) in the slightly streamlined cabinet adds to the impression that a new page in the history of Greek politics is being written. Although Costas Karamanlis had seven women in his previous government, most were in deputy minister positions, whereas Papandreou has put many of his female colleagues – Anna Diamantopoulou (Education), Mariliza Xenogiannakopoulo (Health), Louka Katseli (Economy ), Tina Birbili (Environment) and Katerina Batzeli (Agriculture) – in charge of their departments.

Many of the members of the new government are close associates of Papandreou, which one might expect, but he has also seasoned his administration with a sprinkling of old hands such as Haris Kastanidis (Justice), Dimitris Reppas (Infrastructure) and Michalis Chrysochoidis (Citizens’ Protection). If the cabinet were a football team, you would say that it seems to have a good blend of youth and experience.

The tough choice for Papandreou was what to do with Evangelos Venizelos – the precocious star of the team. Rather than sideline him, the prime minister gave him a meaty portfolio (Defence) but appointed another political bruiser, Theodoros Pangalos, above him by reviving the long-forgotten post of deputy prime minister.

It seems a shrewd move as Venizelos – who so aggressively challenged Papandreou for the PASOK leadership after the disastrous election result in 2007 – can’t be disappointed by the post but equally will find it difficult to use it as a pulpit for promoting himself should the prime minister’s popularity or grip on the government begin to wane.

The unveiling of the cabinet, however, did not come without some negative aspects. The first was the confusion over who would fill the posts at the newly created Environment Ministry. Papandreou has made much of his green credentials and the intention of his government, unlike the previous ones, to prevent Greece from turning into a barren wasteland.

Therefore, it was surprising that just a couple of hours before the cabinet was named it should emerged that the Ecologist Greens, who narrowly failed to make it into Parliament, were approached with regard to one of their members either taking over at the Environment Ministry or at least becoming deputy minister.

The exact details of the offer remain sketchy, which is doubly worrying as it seems the whole affair was handled in an amateur fashion. One would have thought that since this ministry was one of his priorities, Papandreou would have a Plan A, B and C for how we would make appointments to it and would not have to rely on last-ditch leaps.

The overtures to the Ecologist Greens were in one sense a welcome piece of “hands across the aisle” politics, in a country where the only thing usually crossing the aisles in Parliament are verbal volleys. But the slapdash way in which it was handled undid any of the positives to come out of it. The Ecologist Greens were probably right to turn down the offer as in the end it looked more like a political stunt than a genuine approach.

The other aspect of the cabinet that deserves some scrutiny is Papandreou’s decision to appoint himself as foreign minister. Although he has experience in the position and is at his best when he is rubbing shoulders with the world’s leaders and thinkers, it is also an indictment of the team that he has assembled that he does not feel there is anyone there – at least for the time being – that can do as good a job as him.

Saying that, if Papandreou intends this to be a short-term appointment, giving him enough time to sort out some pressing problems, it could turn out to be a masterstroke. He wasted no time in making his first contact with the Turkish leadership, speaking to both Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the sidelines of a Balkan leaders’ meeting in Istanbul on Friday, four days after being sworn in.

It seems that Papandreou’s intention is to get relations with Turkey back on an even keel, so that this can then have a positive knock-on effect on negotiations in Cyprus. If these two areas stop to weigh Greek diplomacy down, then the prime minister/foreign minister can focus on sorting out the name dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

None of the three will be easy tasks but Papandreou clearly has faith in his diplomatic ability. He has shown that he plans not to waste time either. If this new dynamic leads to solutions, then, who knows, maybe like Obama, Papandreou will also be picking up a Nobel Peace Prize as well. For now though, he will settle for getting through the first 100 days of his government with as many plaudits and as much positive energy as the first week.

Nick Malkoutzis