Leading from behind?
Leading from behind?
Philippe Boulet-Gercourt

PARIS - Naive or arrogant? Daring or cautious? Four years after he entered the White House, Obama remains an enigma.

Naive or cunning?
"I never saw someone so competitive. What is the only thing that Barack Obama hates more than losing? Losing twice," confides Robert Gibbs, his former press advisor. But Obama wants to win fair and square. When he plays basketball, he is furious if he thinks any of his opponents are letting him win.

One possible psychological explanation: fatherless and marked by the feeling of being "different," Obama has struggled all his life to be an insider, at Harvard, the University of Chicago, or Washington, by proving his exceptional qualities.

This, however, is the same Obama that the left calls naïve, and accuses of having wasted nearly two years trying to compromise with the right on healthcare reform, before finally being forced to pass the measure without a single conservative vote.

Instead of gauging his strength and coming into the arena ready to fight, Obama believed his popularity and charisma would be enough to create a spirit of compromise, just as he let himself be persuaded that he could demand that Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu stop any further settlements in the West Bank and it would just happen. This seems strangely naive for a fierce competitor.

Outgoing or solitary?
A rock-star president who enthralls crowds, with a radiant smile and contagious charisma-- everyone thought that Obama's arrival at the White House would be the end of the boring, early-to-bed George and Laura Bush era. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would be an open house for artists, welcoming, engaged.

The reality, four years later: a solitary president who spends his free time mostly with his family. "This is the best spot in the whole White House," he recently told journalist Michael Lewis, pointing to a second-floor balcony. "Michelle and I come out here at night and just sit. It’s the closest you can get to feeling outside. To feeling outside the bubble."

As with Bill Clinton, people get goose bumps when Obama comes into the room. He electrifies those he meets. But the comparison stops there. Clinton was a virtuoso of relationships with the political world, alternating phone calls, cocktail parties and backslaps. Obama, though, often is the despair of his advisors, refusing to pick up the phone to thank, cajole or consult people.

Trusting or arrogant?
The president’s nickname "No-drama Obama" has stuck in all fairness. Obama keeps his temper under control and does not react impulsively. This could be seen during the 2008 primaries, when he was far behind Hillary Clinton, but never seemed to panic. As president, he has never given the impression of reacting erratically to events, like Bill Clinton.

Obviously, there is a thin line between self-confidence and arrogance. Bush's strategist Karl Rove once said maliciously about Obama, "He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette, that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by." That is unfair. But there was a hint of Obama's top-of-the-class arrogance in the last televised debate, when he said: "I think Governor Romney maybe has not spent enough time looking at how our military works."

Inexperienced or skillful?
Dan Germain, a Texas Republican, says, "I don't know why Obama was elected. What had he accomplished until then? He had spent two years in the Senate without doing anything. Then as soon as he gets elected, he gets the Nobel Peace Prize!"

For the past four years, the Republicans have been trying to promote the image of an accidental, novice president, incapable of guiding the country out of the crisis, while Mitt Romney, in contrast, "knows how jobs are created and destroyed."

A learning period is a reality for every president, and there was no ready solution for a crisis this brutal and unpredictable. Of course, Obama did not arrive at the White House completely unprepared. He was surrounded by many Clinton-era advisors. It is true, though; that it took him a while to understand how Washington works.

According to Ron Suskind in Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, Larry Summers once confided to then Budget Director Peter Orszag, "You know, Peter we're really home alone. There's no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes."

Daring or cautious?
Obama is both. Cautious, when he acted to promote the Stimulus Package or to help millions of homeowners struggling with their mortgages. Cautious, too, when he decided to treat Wall Street with kid gloves in order not to rock the finance boat.

Cautious, however, in foreign policy in relation to China, Russia, or Israel, to the point of being described as a president who "leads cautiously from the back."

That was a few weeks before the Bin Laden operation, and no one since then has accused Obama of being timorous. But he does sometimes-- and only sometimes-- give the impression of being calculating, to the point of backing off from an obstacle rather than trying to overcome it at the risk of injury.

On the left or in the center?
An essay published this fall in Harper"s magazine caused a stir in the microcosm of the American left. Thomas Frank, an influential thinker, writes, What Barack Obama has saved is a bankrupt elite that by all means should have met its end back in 2009. He came to the White House amid circumstances similar to 1933, but proceeded to rule like Herbert Hoover.” The left, in particular, cannot understand how the president could have surrounded himself with men close to Wall Street, like Larry Summers or Tim Geithner.

Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize for economics, is critical too, admonishing the president for a too-timid Stimulus Plan. Krugman does admit the historic importance of the healthcare reform, for which Obama risked his presidency. If he is re-elected, Obama will be able to implement the most important healthcare reform in the American security system since Medicare, the health insurance for the old created by Lyndon Johnson in 1965. That is on the left, isn't it?

Dove or hawk?
It is one of the most familiar zinger of Mitt Romney"s campaign: Obama began his presidency with an “apology tour” abroad. This is not true, of course, but that does not keep Romney from hammering away at the theme. "I will not and I will never apologize for America." Implied, of course, is: as a good Republican, I will be a hawk, unlike Obama who was a dove like Carter.

The accusation is absurd when addressed to the man who approved the extraordinarily daring raid to kill Bin Laden. What is true is that Obama has never given a clear picture of his views on military force. When is it legitimate or excessive, necessary or superfluous? This could be seen in Libya, even if, in the end, it was Obama himself, against the advice of his generals, who decided to save Benghazi. This is seen, too, in Syria. "They had a hard time getting into step with the Arab Spring," says James Mann, author of The Obamians, a book on Obama's foreign policy.

First they changed the paradigm, going from support for dictatorial regimes to a preference for democracy. It was an enormous change, but they have encountered a number of problems in applying this principle to countries like Bahrain. So they have opted for support of "reform." Translation: reform does have to mean a regime change.

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Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

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🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

• A battle axe for a tail: Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a newly identified dinosaur species with a completely unique feature from any other creatures that lived at that time: a flat, weaponized tail resembling a battle axe.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never.

— U.S. actor Alec Baldwin spoke to ABC News, his first interview since the accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust last October. The actor said that although he was holding the gun he didn’t pull the trigger, adding that the bullet “wasn't even supposed to be on the property.”

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

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