IS BARACK ALL JUST BLUSTER?

After a remarkable few days, yesterday I found my brain reeling from all the visual images and the ‘sound bytes’ which have dominated our media for the last week or so and which culminated with the visit of US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. But whereas the visit of the Queen was entirely satisfying and, dare I say it, moving, the visit of Obama was not in the same league at all. Did it suffer by the comparison with one of the most important events to have taken place in the last century in this country? Or (shock horror) is President Obama not quite living up to his own ability to communicate and to generate PR for himself?

On arrival at Aras an Uachtarain I was struck by Obama the Showman, as he yelled to the assembled media “Good morning, how are you all doing?” But perhaps he was just doing what many Americans do naturally – oozing confidence and informality.

His trip to Moneygall, which was one of those towns you sped through on your way between Dublin and Limerick and were never tempted to stop, was different. Here I thought he was most himself. Clearly relaxed and seemingly very taken with the fact that his third great grandfather (who rejoiced in the very unlikely Irish name of Falmouth) had come from this little town. He was in no hurry as he held babies, received hugs and shook what looked every hand in the town.

Then he adjourned to the pub in the usual piece of staged PR for Diageo. Like Clinton before him – he drank the Guinness, waving it towards the photographers and roaring Slainte! Then it was back to Dublin for his speech to the Irish. I was someone who stayed up into the small hours to watch him being elected in 2008. I am a big fan and so was tempted to go into the city to listen to this man who carries not only the hope of Americans but of the free world with him.

But having braved thousands in Dun Laoghaire for the Red Bull Flopfest the previous day, I’d had enough of crowds and so decided to watch from my sofa instead. As I listened I kept waiting to be uplifted. To hear something I could hold onto. To feel that my faith in this man was going to be rewarded with even just an insightful comment which would make it clear that he understood modern Ireland and our current situation. But instead what I got was a speech that seemed to me to have been cobbled together on the flight over, taking more than a little inspiration from both Kennedy and Clinton before him but without the context that both of these predecessors had. Kennedy was addressing a relatively newly independent Ireland and Clinton was marking the Peace Process.

Obama is a consummate communicator and a great performer. There is no doubt about that. But is he a statesman, a visionary, a great leader of our time? Not yet he ain’t. As I watched him on TV, I laughed and smiled and felt good. But within minutes of it ending, I was left feeling pretty unsatisfied. It was like eating a McDonald’s meal – tastes great but shortly afterwards you realize you are still hungry.

This was no visit, official or otherwise. This was a ‘dropping by’ on his way to bigger and more important business in Europe. His few hours in Ireland provided a bit of R&R for all concerned. And the opportunity to tell us we are a great little country who helped build America; a little island who has had its fair share of dark days but who always overcomes adversity. Had no one told him that only a few days beforehand, in her clipped and formal tones, Banrian Eilis a Do had signaled Ireland’s coming of age and along with our own President Mary McAleese set our faces most definitely to the future.

Grown up Ireland should expect far more from the President of the United States, than a photo opportunity with a bloody pint of Guinness and the same old speech telling us we are great. No, there was no vision of Ireland’s role on a world stage, no creativity of thinking, just same ole’, same ole’. Not good enough anymore. No siree. A definite case of could do a whole lot better!

Postscript: There was one highlight of the visit though and this is really for the benefit of my American readers.

We had all heard about the huge entourage of both people and vehicles that travel with the President. The most impressive of these is the presidential car (of which there is in fact at least two). This car, known as the beast is bullet proof and bomb proof and weight tons. It is truly a magnificence to behold. While waiting outside Aras an Uachtarain (Presidents Residence) it was polished by an aide. The Americans are rightly proud of The Beast. It took a ride over a security/speed ramp outside the American Embassy in Dublin to put The Beast out of commission! The clip is hilarious – listen for the noise of the cars hitting the ramp and then the hilarity of the Dubliners who were watching! I believe the dead beast was finally towed to Dublin Airport yesterday and is now back in Washington for repair.

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10 Comments

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  1. Tut Tut …maybe you just didn't get it

  2. No I believe you did get it Barbara…you put your finger on it, I have to agree with your post, especially after hearing his speech again last night on tv… plus if you didnt know Ireland you'd be hard put to distingush it from an old board failte ad, guinness, slainte,etc…maybe he suffers in comparison to the previous visit but it felt lightweight…a wasted opportunity.

  3. Barbara, it was really just a photoshoot opportunity, I think.
    At the same time, anything that puts us in a positive light to attract business or tourism has to be a good thing.
    Most of us have more in common with New Yorkers than that diddle di ay image. But I think we have to take what we get and take a lesson from Barack, grab a PR opportunity when you get it.
    Also maybe I'm a cynic but the 'is feidir linn' made me smile, its the 'is feidir liom' attitude that got us into this economic mess again and off our young go to the UK and the US.
    I wish we could bottle the Obamas work ethic and sheer positivity and drink it instead of Guinness.
    Great post!!

  4. Hehehe the cameras caught the car mishap and carried it all over the USA. Weall had a giggle over it.

    I'm sorry the visit felt so vapid for youall. I do understand what you're saying though, because judging from the footage I saw, it was definately more of a vacation stay in Ireland rather than anything more than that.

    I wonder if part of that problem is the fact that we're getting kind of bitch-slapped here in the states with tornadoes and things like that. The day he was touring Ireland, an entire city in Missouri was literally cut in half by a tornado and over 100 people died and a lot are missing. He's supposed to tour Missouri at the end of the week, and he'd just gone through Alabama last month where hundreds of people died in tornadoes all through that area.

    With all of that happening he's going to face criticism for being overseas to begin with when he should be here like preventing tornadoes from happening or something.

  5. I really liked the piece you wrote apart from one tiny bit, the ramp was, in my opinion, I hasten to add, part of the American Embassy's property. Sort of exonerates Ireland completely

  6. I love this:

    “Grown up Ireland should expect far more from the President of the United States, than a photo opportunity with a bloody pint of Guinness and the same old speech telling us we are great”

    So so true!

  7. Excellently put!

    Have to agree very much with you!

    A great PR exercise for his re-election campaign and not much more!

    – Fiona

    ps: Murray did enjoy seeing him drink his pint of Guinness though! But then again, he kept looking out for Bo!! We all look and search for the things we want ….

  8. The reaction to Obama's visit has been classically Irish. This WAS a purely recreational visit. Simple and transactional.

    The President got some nice pictures, great video and a super welcome in Moneygall and Ireland got a ton of low cost good publicity across America.

    Why should Ireland expect more from a President of the USA? Ireland get's exclusive access to him once a year in a fashion that countries many items its size would kill for.Neither Columbus day or Cinco de Mayo get anything close to the attention that Ireland gets.

    Ireland isn't a member of the G8, G20 and in its one major association, the EU, is incredibly unpopular right now.

    Ireland gets more Foreign Direct Investment than China, India, Russia and Brazil COMBINED from the US.

    So Obama didn't move the earth, didn't lift a nation, didn't put the world to rights during what was a recreational visit.

    A few things he has done. Passed massive healthcare improvements, saved almost 1m jobs in the auto industry, killed Bin Laden, steadied a failing country and improved US relations around the world.

    All this while dealing with a political environment inhabited by people who consider the Taliban to be progressives.

    In his second term he is likely to deal with immigration reform (good for Irish illegals), entitlement reform of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (the greatest fiscal crisis facing his country) and pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan without leaving civil wars behind.

    He isn't Bill Clinton or Kennedy of course.
    He's the guy you hope your daughter marries as opposed to the whore monger with a trail of sleaze across a continent.

    In looking at Obama, the guy who pushed himself from humble origins to Harvard, to Chicago, to Senator to President who didn't live up to your expectation you might just have to ask – are your expectations just a little out of whack.

  9. Hi Barbara -glitch with Blogger & comments coming up as Anonymous
    Love your post and agree the speech was short on specifics and big on rhetoric. I also agree that Ireland should move on from the Guinness as our national emblem 'thing'
    I did think though that for what was a flying visit, Obama made the most of it. He is someone who has overcome a lot to end up the most powerful on the planet. The latter alone was enough to make standing wedged in a queue on Dame street, worthwhile.
    Mari G

  10. Hi Barbara, I liked and agreed with your post. As with the vast majority of Irish people I was delighted when he was elected. I have bought two of books and read one of them. He is so far ahead of his rivals in terms of intellectual capacity, emotional integrity and honest commitment that its hard to beliweve there will be a race next year. That said, his performance was poor by his lofty standards. I think his scriptwriters must have gone on holidays or were thinking of their holidays. There was nothing particularly uplifting or original in what he said. Most of us would agree that neither the USA nor Obama owe us anything – quite the reverse – but we had come to expect more from a man who can be inspirational when well briefed. He is always welcome back. He might do better. I think he can.

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