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05 October 2023

Sadly, Obama will become unpopular soon

By Martin Baker

It's all too easy to say nasty things about the city of light, the city of angels. But I love Los Angeles. Much of that is to do with expectations and how one manages them, a topic I shall return to later in the context of where the new US President Obama and his image are destined to end up.

I have driven across the United States and visited southern California by road. But the best way to approach Los Angeles is by air. The great American writer Saul Bellow once intimated that he felt our ability to see clouds from above had somehow damaged and limited the human imagination.

Approaching Los Angeles by plane on a clear, cloudless day certainly damaged and limited the political perspective of Nikolai Kruschev. As the Russian premier in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Kruschev flew above Los Angeles and felt a dagger through his heart. He looked down at the thousands upon thousands of private swimming pools in the yards of ordinary American citizens and realised that the Communist system simply could not compete. For all its apparent failings right now, this is a point worth remembering about credit-crunched capitalism.

I arrived at LAX airport in the night, and the view is, to my mind, even more sensational than a daytime flight. Nocturnal Los Angeles represents a seemingly infinite, symmetrical spider's web of golden light. People talk of the wonders of the ancient world – but this easily available modern sight is something everyone should treat themselves to at least once in their lives. Yes, it sprawls, but it does so with majesty.

Now "majesty" is a word that Americans, with their great reluctance to doff their caps to anyone, tend to use very sparingly. The closest the Americans come, I suppose, is the East Coast Ivy League cliques, the big movie producers (often referred to as LA "royalty") and the office of president, which is revered, even if the incumbent is George W Bush.

One of my London clubs (the one in Pall Mall, not Soho) has a reciprocity arrangement with a number of New York places of extreme "preppiness", including the New York Athletics Club on the southern edge of Central Park. These places are full of mahogany fittings and stuffy attitudes. They are, in short, desperately dull – give me New York's Soho House every time. But the trip to LA afforded an opportunity to visit a different kind of royalty, and feel the fever in the air ahead of the Oscar gala evening on the 22nd of this month.

Staying in the Peninsula on Santa Monica Boulevard gives one as much direct contact as anyone in their right mind could possibly want. Los Angeles hotel bars and restaurants are the homes of the loud, low-grade business conversation. The rule is an evocation of a simple and direct mathematical correlation: the louder the conversation, the lower the grade of the business being done. The graph line does change at the top end of the scale, though – if you come across a really loud, shouty person, you can be sure that all the decibels are just noise for their own sake. No business of any sort will ever get done. People for whom noise is a necessity are the ones who cry themselves to sleep at night.

Having spotted a couple of real movie stars in the Peninsula restaurant, including a formerly very glamorous blonde female who is still blonde, but sadly not glamorous at all any more, it was time to go to the other end of the Hollywood royalty spectrum and take a slow drive down Hollywood Boulevard. This is the surprisingly seedy strip – the one with stars's handprints set into the sidewalk – which also boasts the Kodak Theater. Outside you find a collection of the strange and the outright surreal – frustrated actors who make a living as extras in tourist photos. They dress up as Batman, Darth Vader and, heaven help us all, cartoon characters such as Tweety Pie. These frustrated thespians then pose with tourists for the cameras and charge $10 (Dh36.7) for the privilege. You could say it's a living – I'd argue it's no more than an existence.

For all the predictable sidewalk shenanigans, there's a tangible air of excitement in Los Angeles at the moment, though. People parade around the entrance to the auditorium almost wishing time away.

In a few days' time Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, and Kate Winslett will be right there, walking on newly-laid red carpet, etc, etc.

The early favourite for the best-picture award is Slumdog Millionaire, fashioned by British director, Danny Boyle. I went to see this in the dome at the Ark Light Cinema, just half a mile from the Kodak Theater – and it is a good movie. Whether it will be crushed under the weight of expectation, remains to be seen. The partisan British press will be disappointed if this film doesn't win now.

Which brings me to the last strand of American royalty. President Obama is labouring under a truly staggering burden of expectation. It is in the nature of the American people that they want to feel good. The pursuit of happiness is in their constitution, after all. But this seems to have moved on now, as what's commonly known as the "blogosphere" becomes more and more vocal.

Popular pressure for Obama to re-take his oath of office saw this solemn procedure be re-enacted in private. This kind of pressure and a direct response to the unfocused demand of the people as expressed through technology would have been unthinkable even four years ago.

So Obama, I'm afraid, is on a hiding to nothing. Impossibly high expectations of him will continue to be expressed, and the more he reacts, the louder and more unreasonable the demands will become. He has the biggest expectation management problem I've ever seen. People require so much of him, he is doomed to failure.

Talented and well-intentioned as he is, Obama will become very unpopular indeed within the next year. Sad, but true. Just watch and wait.

- The writer is a journalist, analyst and commentator on international business affairs