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.
Early detection and accessible help are essential in the fight against domestic violence. Hairdressers in the Dutch province of North Brabant are now being trained to identify when their customers are facing abuse at home.
TILBURG — The three hairdressers in the bare training room of the hairdressing company John Beerens Hair Studio are absolutely sure: they have never seen signs of domestic violence among their customers in this city in the Netherlands. "Or is that naïve?"
When, a moment later, statistics appear on the screen — one in 20 adults deals with domestic violence, as well as one or two children per class — they realize: this happens so often, they must have victims in their chairs.
All three have been in the business for years and have a loyal clientele. Sometimes they have customers crying in the chair because of a divorce. According to Irma Geraerts, 45, who has her own salon in Reusel, a village in the North Brabant region, they're part-time psychologists. "A therapist whose hair I cut explained to me that we have an advantage because we touch people. We are literally close. The fact that we stand behind people and make eye contact via the mirror also helps."
That intimate contact is one of the reasons why The Netherland's Child Abuse Taskforce and the Sterk Huis (Strong Home) aid organization want to make use of hairdressers to detect domestic violence. People often go to the same hairdresser for years, exchange remarkably intimate stories, and feel a strong bond of trust. A lot of experience has already been gained in Anglo-Saxon countries and thousands of hairdressers have been trained.
In front of the room, today's trainer is moving restlessly, one hand hidden in her sleeve, the other rubbing a leg. She tries to teach the hairdressers to recognize signals and open up a discussion about them through role-playing. They find it difficult: someone with a bruise could have fallen, couldn't they? How do you start a conversation? The trainer helps them: "Don't start with your feelings or judgement. Emphasize what you hear or see."
On November 25, the United Nations campaign against violence against women started for the 21st time with its tagline "Orange the World" and buildings lit up in orange to draw attention to the issue. But despite years of awareness-raising campaigns, task forces and national programs such as 'Geweld hoort nergens thuis' (Violence has no place in the home), violence rates are hardly decreasing.
According to figures from The Netherland's Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), 5.5% of adults have been victims of domestic violence at least once in the past five years. It happens to both women and men, but when it comes to structural partner violence, women are six times more likely to be victims than men. Women are also more likely to suffer serious injuries, sometimes fatally. Of all murdered women in the Netherlands, 80% are killed by their partner or by a family member. That is why it is called femicide. Reports from social workers show that 119,000 children (3% of the total number) have experienced child abuse. In reports that ask children directly, the figure goes up to 12%.
Why are domestic violence and child abuse (which often go hand in hand) so difficult to tackle? And are there new methods that do work?
An intimate relationship
Domestic violence is an immensely complex problem, according to researchers and social workers. It hardly ever involves a single blow being dealt. "It has so many forms," says Nelleke Westerveld of the Movisie center for social development. It ranges from physical violence to psychological violence, from intimate terrorism — in which the man usually exerts far-reaching control over the woman – to stalking, sexual or honor-related violence. "Some forms of violence are clearly based on stress and risk factors, such as poverty, addiction or psychological problems," says Westerveld. "But power also plays a role. Care workers must therefore properly map out the situation, because all these forms require a specific approach. At the same time, it is not written on someone's forehead what kind of violence they are dealing with."
"You often see that people have been in a situation of violence for years, on average seven years, before they finally decide to ask for help," says Teun Haans, cluster manager at Sterk Huis, which together with the Child Abuse Taskforce organizes the training courses for hairdressers. "We also know that the longer the violence lasts, the more difficult it is to change the situation. So you have to get to it much earlier. The environment, in particular, can play a crucial role."
Research also shows that people who are close to the victim have the biggest impact. "Neighbors, teachers, sports coaches or caretakers who replace a door for the third time. They should ask themselves: what is going on here?"
Too much respect for privacy
In the southern region of North Brabant they are aiming for a broad approach: domestic violence should not be an issue that only professionals deal with, but one for society as a whole. So far, the fire brigade and the housing association's caretakers have been trained, and this month is the turn of hairdressers. Whether this training leads to more reports is yet to be investigated.
But what Haans does know is that 'Veilig Thuis Midden-Brabant' (Safe Home Central Brabant), the regional department of the national organization that reports and advises on domestic violence and child abuse, is the only organization in the Netherlands that did not receive fewer reports during the lockdowns. In the rest of the country, that number did drop. Not because the violence decreased (there is every reason to assume that it actually increased because of being locked down together), but because the police, social workers and teachers no longer visited people.
We Dutch people have the thickest front doors in Europe.
The idea for the broad approach was developed together with Experts By Experience. For years, social workers spoke about the victims. But nowadays, those who have lived experience of abuse are the new experts who are sitting at the table and contributing. "They told us over and over again: the baker, the teacher, the neighbor, they all knew, but nobody ever asked if they could do anything," says Haans. "We Dutch people have the thickest front doors in Europe. We are terrified to interfere with someone's private life."
Hairdresser in Rotterdam, Netherlands
Daniëlle (34, a self-employed accountant) is an Expert By Experience. As a child, she was neglected by her mother, who suffered from mental health issues and locked her up out of powerlessness. When she was with her father, her stepmother would beat her and drag her down the stairs if she did something wrong. "The worst part was not the blows, because I knew: those will be over soon.
The permanent fear, that was the worst." She believes in the Brabant approach: "I had totally ruined teeth because nobody taught me how to brush them, yet the dentist never noticed something else was up." According to her, bystanders often think they must save you, that they have to solve the problem, which is why they prefer to look away. "But they don't have to. It would have helped me so much if someone had pointed out to me that this was not normal, and that I did not have to blame myself."
Daniëlle experienced the power of such a gesture once. Her internship supervisor at a travel agency had noticed that she did not offer clients coffee. "I said I couldn't do that because I was sure I would drop the cup. I didn't mention it was because, as a child, I got beaten up if I dropped anything. 'What if I drop the cup?' I said. 'Then we'll just get a new one,' she replied. She not only taught me that I could serve a cup of coffee, but — more importantly — that I could change something."
It's about opening the conversation, Haans explains. "That can be the start of a change." The hairdressers are also urged to do so. It is not the intention that they start calling Veilig Thuis hotline as soon as their customers have left. When Sterk Huis, the organization Haans works for, posted a call on Facebook for the hairdressers' training, it caused a commotion: were hairdressers going to 'report' their clients? Of course, that's not the intention, says Haans. "But you can let them know that they can chat and call Veilig Thuis for instance, and you can bring up the topic again the next time they get a haircut."
Fast help needed
Does this broad approach help to bring down the figures? Based on a 2020 report (The long-winded issue: can domestic violence and child abuse really be stopped?), one could make a cautiously optimistic prediction. Researcher Katinka Lünnemann and her colleagues at the Verwey-Jonker Institute followed over the course of three years 576 families who had been reported to Veilig Thuis. In one third of the families that received help, the violence eventually stopped. The violence also decreased in families that, for some reason, did not receive direct help (but were monitored), but to a lesser extent. According to Lünnemann, an explanation for the latter is that the report alone may have set something in motion: the silence is broken, "and we know that awareness is the first step towards change".
The Netherlands was shocked
At the same time, despite the help, serious and frequent violence still occurs in 50% of families: both partner violence and child abuse. And that is serious, because the longer the violence continues, the more harmful it is. Chronic stress causes changes in the brain, which makes it harder for children to learn and solve difficult problems. They are also more likely to become stressed even when performing normal tasks.
One of the problems is that, in the Netherlands, many institutions such as Veilig Thuis and the Jeugdbescherming youth protection agency do not provide any help themselves. "Victims are often directed to other organizations," says Lünnemann. "There is a lack of fast, concrete help."
This was also one of the conclusions of her research into the situation in Rotterdam. In 2018, the city was rocked by the murders of three young women, including 16-year-old Hümeyra, in close succession. The Netherlands was shocked. How could things have gone so wrong?
With the formation of Veilig Thuis in 2015 and the decentralization of youth care to the municipalities, it was precisely the intention to organize help that was closer to the people. But an extra layer was added. In Rotterdam, citizens cannot go directly to the community team; they need a referral form from, for example, Veilig Thuis. A lot of expertise was lost as a result of this organizational change," Lünnemann concluded.
The danger of the broad approach in North Brabant therefore lurks in the follow-up process, Lünnemann fears. "I hold Sterk Huis in high esteem, but we are already seeing a shortage of real assistance. So if you start training all kinds of groups in society to recognize domestic violence, there will be more reports and you have to make sure that the extra help is ready." That extra help is not there yet, confirms Haans of Sterk Huis.
The broad approach is good for raising awareness in society, that is indisputable according to Lünnemann. But the real solution lies in the recommendations she made for Rotterdam: there must be more actual help, real cooperation and, perhaps most important of all, accessible physical places where women at risk can go.
At the Schiedamsedijk in Rotterdam, such a place became available recently. Those who report to the municipal health services desk with the code phrase "I'm here for Filomena" are taken by hostess Gaby to a bright living room with pastel-colored furniture and a playpen with baby toys and plants. Only the large posters of the traveling photo exhibition on domestic violence give away that this is no ordinary living room.
Not only is this the only place in the Netherlands where victims can walk in without an appointment, but all parties — the police, a forensic doctor ("Many victims take photos of their bruises themselves, but these are not legally valid"), Veilig Thuis, a psychologist and a trauma specialist – are under one roof. This way, the case manager, together with the victim, can literally 'check all the boxes', and can complete the entire investigation in no more than seven days, instead of the usual months. "The victim does not have to tell her story over and over again," says care manager Christine Clement of Filomena, Centre for Domestic Violence and Child Abuse. "And there is no talking about the victim in her absence: she is always there."
A woman comes forward to make her first report in the presence of her friend: she tells her story for the first time. She has no injuries at the time, but her partner has attempted strangulation before. "That's when all the alarm bells go off, because that is often a signal that there is a risk of femicide," Clement says later. The woman faces intimate terrorism and reveals that she has a tracker on her phone: her partner keeps an eye on where she is. With an excuse that she had to be in this neighborhood, she got away.
there is no talking about the victim in her absence: she is always there.
The woman has an hour at most. Veilig Thuis makes a safety assessment on the spot and determines what needs to be done. "At a time like this, you can see why it's so important that everyone is here," says Clement. "Because sometimes you have to act quickly." It is decided that she will go home, as not to arouse suspicion. All contact will be through her friend because the partner checks the victim's phone. In the meantime, Filomena arranges for a place in a shelter.
Three days later, she is taken to that safe place "somewhere in the Netherlands," so that there is less chance of her partner finding her. She has a new mobile phone and gets help to cope with the effect the violence has had on her, Clements says. "And of course, she has the support of the other women in the shelter."
*With the cooperation of Monique van de Ven. For privacy reasons, some interviewees are only referred to by their first name. Their full names are known to the editors.
**This article was translated with permission of the author
If you are in an unsafe situation or are looking for help, here is an international directory with the names and links of organizations dealing with domestic abuse around the world.
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