John Key was roundly mocked last year when he claimed that he and Barack Obama had a lot in common. However the early months of their respective administrations suggest he was onto something
Perhaps John Key had a point when he compared himself to Barack Obama last year. This weekend has made one thing perfectly clear – they're both making significant political gains by simply not being the previous guy, or gal.
President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize victory at the weekend had little to do with his story and achievements, and everything to do with the fact he's not George W. Bush. The nomination was made when he was barely a fortnight into office, so while his multi-lateralism, commitment to dialogue with adversaries and desire to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world would have influenced the vote, his place in the race was due to who he is not as much as who he is. He is not Bush, the unilateralist; Bush of the unnecessary war, lies and spurious intelligence; Bush the torturer.
In that regard, the Nobel prize is an award for American democracy and a thank you gift from the rest of the world to US voters. As Obama has recognised by calling it "a call to action", it's also an invitation for America to get back in the game; indeed to lead on nuclear arms reductions, climate change and reforming trade in a way that helps the world's poorest.
For John Key, the prize for not being Helen Clark is nothing so grand as a trip to Oslo. Rather, it's a relatively smooth first year during which his likeability has carried him over every political hurdle he's come across.
What's often forgotten about Key's clumsy Obama comparison in an interview with the Financial Times last September is the detail. Key said they were alike because he, like Obama, wasn't an insider and wasn't "institutionalised".
In many ways it was a prescient observation because that fact has defined the early months of both their administrations.
I was late in boarding the Obama bandwagon; I backed Hillary Clinton. My reasoning was simple – she was Washington through-and-through and she would play the game to win. She would get the job done.
Obama's power as a transformational symbol cannot be under-stated, and the award this weekend is testament to the healing that's achieved for America – and Americans – on the world stage. But where Bush was 'The Decider', Obama risks becoming 'The Procrastinator', or at least, 'The Stymied One'.
He has put all his chips on healthcare this year, and it's going to be a close run thing. Until a healthcare bill is passed he can't seriously address a single other issue, such is the fear that he may anger an ally in Congress and thus lose a vote. As a result, other jobs are piling up.
American representatives will likely head to Copenhagen in December without a clear Congressional mandate on climate... Obama's vow to act on gay rights and an end to the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy is hamstrung... Trade Representative Ron Kirk's "stocktake" of US free-trade deals is thought to have been completed, but also must wait its turn. As US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell explained on Q+A this weekend, the US understands that the Asia-Pacific region has been "waiting patiently" for them to get back into the trade arena. 'We're coming, just taiho a little longer,' was his unspoken message. 'We'll get there just as soon as we've sorted healthcare'.
Obama entered office with huge political capital, but he's struggling to harness it effectively. His lack of experience is hurting him.
A lack of experience is showing up in Wellington as well as Washington. In contrast to Obama, Key has got runs on the board. Laws have been changed, policy promises enacted. But if anything defines this government it's still a lack of political coherency.
You can put that down to a number of things – Key's innate conservatism warring with the right-wing reform agenda elsewhere in his Cabinet, his desire above all else to win a second-term, and the stalling powers of a recession, for example. But that lack of coherency is a pitfall-in-waiting.
Consider 'the nanny state'. It was central to National's election win last year. Voters loved the fact that John Key was nothing like bossy Aunty Helen. He wouldn't tinker with social behaviours, he'd get on with running the country for the good of the majority.
Yet from folate in bread to driving with a cellphone, National's approach to governing social issues has been strikingly similar to Labour's. Key's getting away with it for now – the likeability is more obvious than the inexperience and incoherence – but for how long?
An example of this incoherence popped up last week, unnoticed by most. Maori Affairs minister Pita Sharples announced half a million dollars for communal gardens to be built on marae.
"On the most immediate level it will result in measurable benefits in terms of healthy produce to eat," Sharples said. "But there are other less-tangible but just as significant benefits -- healthy outdoor activity, and learning the skills of planting, growing, harvesting and storing fruit and vegetables."
It's a grand idea, the kind of thing we should be doing in schools as well. Well, we were. The enviro-schools project has been hugely popular in hundreds of schools nationwide, as students have grown their own fruit and vegetables in communal gardens. Only the government has ignored school protests and canned its funding. Local protests haven't made it to the 'national' papers, but it's getting plenty of column inches in the regional press, such as here, here and here.
This is small stuff politically, but it's poor management and makes no sense. Why take away money from school gardens and give money to marae gardens? Why have the Education minister culling gardens with one hand and the Maori Affairs minister planting gardens with another? Either it's a good idea and something government should be backing, or it's not. It's a sign, however small, that no-one in this government is paying attention to the big picture stuff.
So perhaps Key isn't that similar to Obama after all. Obama has a strategy, but just can't get it done; Key on the other hand can get stuff done. What he lacks is the strategy.