Sunday, March 14, 2010 - 20:30

So how is Obama coping with political discontent at home?

George Negus talks with the President's long-time friend and colleague, Jeffrey Bleich, who was recently appointed as the new United States Ambassador to Australia.

Bleich is a top lawyer from California, who has known Barack Obama for 20 years, and played a major role in his campaign for the White House.

Bleich understands better than most just what the President is thinking and how he's feeling right now.

Watch George Negus's revealing interview with the US Ambassador, as broadcast on Dateline, or click here for an extended version of the interview with Jeffrey Bleich. 

You can also watch this week's Obamanation story on the problems facing Barack Obama at home.

And SBS's World News Australia has a dedicated site on Obama's Presidency.

Photo (Barack Obama): Getty



Now Datelines chat with Jeff Bleich, good friend and long-time colleague of President Barack Obama, the man he hand-picked to be US Ambassador to this country. As a rule, interviewing ambassadors can be a tricky business - they are, after all, political PR men for their country. In our game, we call it 'diplo-speak'. So, when we went to Canberra to meet him, I decided I'd ask the President's personal emissary the same sort of political questions I would normally ask a non-diplomat and see what happened. We all expected a different kind of US administration from Barack Obama, and it looks like we also got a different kind of diplomat.

REPORTER: George Negus

GEORGE NEGUS: Excellency, thank you for your time. Speaking as a political journalist, I wouldn't be surprised if, at the moment, the way things are looking for President Obama at home, that he gets a warmer reception here, in Australia, than he is likely to get in many parts of the US because it would appear that the honeymoon is over, now that the hard work has begun for him - opposition, critics - a long way from that elation that people felt after he was elected, when people thought he was about to become president of the world.

JEFFREY BLEICH, US AMBASSADOR TO AUSTRALIA: No, I think that what you are seeing from abroad is a very natural cycle from within the United States. What happens is that, after an election, presidents have to take on - particularly if their president is doing their job - they take on some very hard issues and their popularity falls, and that tends to be what the polls show. This president picked five issues and on each one of the five issues, I think, by any objective standard, he has made more progress than anyone imagined at the outset of his presidency.

GEORGE NEGUS: What were those five for our benefit, because you are familiar with them?

JEFFREY BLEICH: Well, the global financial crisis. We needed to walk back from the edge of the crisis and restore the economy, which was ;

GEORGE NEGUS: But not over yet.

JEFFREY BLEICH: Yeah, but it was about to go off a cliff. Second, was to get out of a Iraq and refocus on Afghanistan, which was becoming a major problem. Restore the American brand, our image in the world, and re-engage internationally. Health care, and energy.

GEORGE NEGUS: Let us talk about that, right.

JEFFREY BLEICH: OK, global financial crisis.

GEORGE NEGUS: Global financial crisis - not over by a long shot. Unemployment as high as it is, a trillion dollars being handed out in all sorts of ways in the name of stimulus, I mean, it is a long way from being 'business as usual' for the United States of America, no matter who is president.

JEFFREY BLEICH: You're right, that there are some serious challenges. We have got a big debt, we have got unemployment that is too high, and we have, you know, and we have other challenges just getting our financial disciplines back in order. But, but, if you just think about that, that is - we have saved the patient and now we have the luxury of trying to deal with some of the symptoms.

GEORGE NEGUS: Is it the case, though, do you think that, before he was elected, people were terribly impressed by his oratory, and people are now still asking questions, his super-critics. Is there more style than substance to Barack Obama?

JEFFREY BLEICH: I think that whenever someone says 'gifted', a speaker, that has to be the argument - "Well, they can't be as good as their speeches are." But he has been.

GEORGE NEGUS: There is no doubt that there has been a shift in world opinion towards the United States. I mean, to use an Australianism, the US was "on the nose" for quite a while there, and his election gave people a lot of hope. It's a bit ironic, almost paradoxic, isn't it, that he is in serious trouble at home.

JEFFREY BLEICH: Again, he is taking on the hardest issues, and he is doing very well at them. Even if you look at the polls, which, you know, isn't always the best way to judge things, but if you look at the polls today, he is doing better than Ronald Reagan did, he is doing better than Bill Clinton did at this point in their presidency.

GEORGE NEGUS: So, why is there this perception that he is, at this point in time on a comparative basis, one of the least successful first-year presidents? Is that spin, or what?

JEFFREY BLEICH: Yeah. I think what we have now that we didn't have 20, 30 years ago is that we have got six channels in the United States that have 24-hour news cycles, and you just need to create crisis, conflict, stories.

GEORGE NEGUS: You have known him for a long while and, in fact, I read where you had said that he is the sort of guy that politics needs more of, and that you wouldn't be surprised if he did become president. Do you think the expectations of Barack Obama were ridiculously high, too high, and that he was suddenly going to solve everything - he could leap over buildings in a single bound and end nuclear weaponry, end Iraq, end climate change, and the global financial crisis all in a weekend. I mean, were our expectations of that man absurdly high?

JEFFREY BLEICH: I don't think the expectations were too high, I think the timing was too high. People think that everything is going to happen overnight - that you elect him and, tomorrow, your problems are solved. These are tough problems. We have been talking, in the United States, about fixing our health care system for 50 years, without any progress. Same thing with our energy system. People remember Jimmy Carter putting solar panels on the White House because he said that we need to start moving towards sustainable energy technologies. He has taken those on, they are tough issues, and he is getting the sort of fights that you'd expect from entrenched special interests.

GEORGE NEGUS: If we talk about the health bind that he's in - he is fighting a real domestic political battle on that front, and only this week I noticed that he has started to put the boots in. It seemed like the old Obama. He started to put the boots into the health insurers. Why has it taken him so long to put the boots into the people who have been charging Americans such absurd amounts of money for their health?

JEFFREY BLEICH: Oh, I think he has been putting the boots in for a while, which is why you see the special interests so aligned and trying to fight any health care reform of any sort.

GEORGE NEGUS: As a political journalist, I could say, "Welcome to realpolitik, Mr President." Can I go back to Afghanistan for a moment?


GEORGE NEGUS: I mean, out of Afghanistan is what we thought he was going to do - bring America out of Afghanistan and, hopefully, us in the process - and he actually increased the number of troops to Afghanistan. That's still an almighty quagmire. And America is involved in Pakistan in a way that a lot of us are not even aware of, with the drones etc. Is he really going to get out of Afghanistan or not? I mean, why should we think that he will when, in fact, the man who was going to get out has increased the number of troops there?

JEFFREY BLEICH: When the President was running, he never said we are going to get out of Afghanistan immediately. He said just the opposite. We diverted troops to Iraq. That compromised our ability to make progress any further in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda started to move in, the Taliban regained strength, and that it was a tactical mistake to have focused on Iraq when we did. He voted against the Iraq war for precisely that reason as, so, his mission was to draw down our troops in Iraq, but keep it a stable country, and then put those troops in Afghanistan. And he knew that we would need to increase our troop strength there in order to stabilise the country.

GEORGE NEGUS: What is the exit plan? What is the date of the exit plan?

JEFFREY BLEICH: Well, the strategy in Afghanistan was never to create a new democracy or for us to have any kind of long-term presence there at all. What we needed to do was stabilise the country multilaterally, give the civilian infrastructure the help they needed, eliminate some corruption, get some aid in, help people help themselves, so that they would have a stable enough country than it would not be attractive to terrorism. They would be able to ward off those criminal elements.

GEORGE NEGUS: We don't have - the White House or anybody else - a cut-off point for Afghanistan?

JEFFREY BLEICH: No, I don't think you can say this is the absolute date when that is going to occur in Afghanistan, but everyone has a common mission, and we are moving effectively towards that.

GEORGE NEGUS: I can't help but raise Iran, which he led us to believe - and we all got terribly excited about the fact that negotiations, consultations, some sort of the movement, a hand extended to Iran, would happen without condition. I wouldn't say that's exactly what's happened. I mean, the situation with Iran is just as tricky, just as delicate, and just as dangerous as it always was.

JEFFREY BLEICH: The Iranian situation is difficult, but the President has said that he is prepared to speak with Iran, but he always said that there are - it is not without conditions. He was going to state very clearly what his expectations were of any conversation with them - that they would abandon their nuclear ambitions, that they would renounce any aggressive or military action against Israel - and I think there was one other, which you said, during the time of the campaign.

GEORGE NEGUS: But they were conditions, really, weren't they?

JEFFREY BLEICH: Well, those are expectations.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you think he realised, do you think anybody realised, what an enormous task - I mean, the things that he is confronted by have probably never confronted any world leader. And then you hear the criticism, the sniping, that goes on about him at the moment. I mean, they have come out, the anti-Obama people, who may or may not be racist in their intent, and he has been called a liar, he has been called a socialist - I don't know which one is worse in American terms - but the criticisms have been venomous, actually, of this man.

JEFFREY BLEICH: One of the great things about this president is he doesn't rattle. If you just observe him for any period of time

GEORGE NEGUS: He is a pretty cool dude.

JEFFREY BLEICH: He is a very cool dude. In fact, that's probably the best description - he is cool under pressure. He stays calm, he is comfortable in his own skin, and he doesn't lose focus or get distracted because other people are intemperate or try and bait him.

GEORGE NEGUS: I guess the harshest thing I can say is that there are people already saying, rightly or wrongly, that Barack Obama could be a one-term president. The guess that would make you a one-term ambassador, too.

JEFFREY BLEICH: Look, when you run for president, you run against another human being. And it is not surprising that if the country thinks you'll be better at that position than the other human being that you come in with this big wave of momentum and enthusiasm. After you're elected, you're running against people's expectation, image of who you'll be, and what you will do for them. You are not running against another person. You are not running against a mortal and, so, some people are just - their expectations are too high about what you can accomplish immediately with it. People pick these arbitrary deadlines.

GEORGE NEGUS: I guess you could say that, in his case, that's politics and, in your case, that's diplomacy. Nice meeting you.

JEFFREY BLEICH: It was very nice to meet you.

GEORGE NEGUS: Great chat.

Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich, Barack Obama's hand-picked personal emissary to this country, and it definitely wasn't all 'diplo-speak'.

Interview Producer/Researcher


Interview Editor

Photos courtesy of The White House Flicker