Friday, January 27, 2012

S'pore has the cleanest govt citizens can buy

This article by Blomberg appears in Straits Times on 27 Jan 2012.

Blomberg Editorial

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong isn't often taken publicly to task. But when you make $3.1 million a year to run a country, people tend to expect results. When they don't get them, the aggrieved masses turn to that lowest-of-common-denominator gripes: Hey, how much are we paying this guy?

Lots compared with, say, Mr Barack Obama, who as US president gets US$400,000 (S$500,000) a year. Mr Lee's compensation will fall 36 per cent, and that of Singapore's president will drop 51 per cent to $1.54 million. The cuts were based on the recommendations of an advisory committee formed three weeks after last May's election, when opposition party candidates made hay with the pay issue - and the ruling People's Action Party won with the narrowest margin since independence in 1965.

Such still-fat pay cheques may give pause. Yet let's applaud Singapore for what it's trying to achieve by paying top salaries to leaders and ministers: attracting the best and brightest to public service and reducing the temptation to engage in graft. Done properly, such initiatives can make governments more efficient and economies more vibrant. Transparency International has ranked Singapore among the world's top five least-corrupt governments since 2001, and according to Worldwide Governance Indicators, an index supported by the World Bank, it has also been among the best governed.

Since the 1997 Asian crisis, the region's other governments have had a mixed record in holding public servants to account, making growth more efficient, and creating the institutions - independent judiciaries, central banks and media as well as freer watchdog groups - needed to clean up political and economic systems. One way for Asian countries, home to a big share of the world's households living on US$2 a day, to boost their economies is to increase the pay of their civil servants.

Take Cambodia, which ranked at the bottom of a recent regional Transparency International corruption survey. Its government workers pad their paltry, sporadic pay by demanding bribes for everything from birth certificates to school grades. One oft-cited International Monetary Fund working paper argues that paying civil servants make less than half what a garment worker makes.

In China, corruption is the common link between state-owned banks doling out billions of dollars to cronies; land grabs by local government officials; and the negligence that killed 40 people in a high-speed rail crash last July. If Beijing paid higher salaries, it might reduce the incidence of graft and rent-seeking that aggravates the lopsidedness of China's development. Its Gini coefficient, an income-distribution gauge, has climbed to almost 0.5 from less than 0.3 a quarter-century ago.

Japan should consider fattening public pay cheques, too. Although Japan's best and brightest are still drawn by the prestige of a government career, over the past two decades the differential between private and public salaries has grown. Ministerial slush funds help make up the difference, and in recent years, numerous scandals have arisen involving bureaucrats using such money for limousines, louche excursions and golf-club memberships.

More fundamentally, Japan's economic model encourages dangerous collusion between the public and private sectors. The root of the problem is amakudari, or "descent from heaven". It's the main gravy train for public servants; when they retire, ministers and bureaucrats get cushy jobs in industries they oversaw while in government. The incentive is to look out for your future employer, not taxpayers.

Japan's nuclear crisis, for example, was made worse by power-industry regulators focused on their post-government careers, not Japan's 126 million people. Pledges by Japan's ruling Democratic Party of Japan to abolish amakudari have gone unfulfilled. But for the sake of its citizens' welfare, Japan needs to end the practice, perhaps in return for better salaries and pensions.

Of course, throwing money at corruption won't make it go away. If it did, countries such as Kenya, which pays its members of Parliament handsomely - more than US$13,000 a month - would be paragons of virtue instead of cellar-dwellers in Transparency International's annual Corruption Perceptions Index. Decent salaries are just one incentive that can tilt the cost-benefit analyses of potential bribe-takers towards probity: More important than reducing the potential financial benefits of corruption is increasing the probability of detection and meaningful punishment.

Singapore isn't exactly a hotbed of anti-corruption muckraking. According to the 2010 US State Department Human Rights Report, journalists in Singapore practise "self-censorship", the level of public debate is "moderate", and opposition parties face "formidable obstacles". Yet the city-state does have an aggressive Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau; professional courts; a ramrod political will inculcated by its first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (father of Lee Hsien Loong); and a ruthless, relentless emphasis on efficiency and results.

Not every country can follow that recipe, especially those with larger, more diverse populations. Still, countries like Cambodia can start by auditing its public services to get a sense of how bad corruption really is - something it will have to do in any case to comply with the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. Civil society groups can help greatly in that process: We think the United Nations would be wise to let them take part in the process it has created to review a country's anti-corruption efforts.

Japan could benefit greatly from an independent watchdog agency to investigate corruption; and given its global influence, we also don't understand why it is one of only 35 countries yet to ratify UN convention. And even if the huge internal challenges of fighting corruption in China risk tampering with the prerogatives of Communist Party control, the government could crack down on the pervasive bribe-mongering of Chinese companies overseas, which presents a huge global challenge.

There's an old saying in Asia that the real money is in government. Not the pay cheques, but the kickbacks. Isn't it possible that a big more capitalism at the highest levels of public service will make capitalism itself more efficient and equitable? We think Singapore proves it can.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Saudi: no cash from emerging economies until given more clout

Personal note: It seems that the poorer nations are required to help to bail out the richer and bigger nations than the other way around. The recent financial crisis started in the West and now, accusing fingers are pointed to the East for their own doing (the West), sigh. What logic is that? Read on...

By Andrew Torchia
Mon, Jan 23 2012

RIYADH (Reuters) – Big emerging economies such as China, India and Saudi Arabia will not aid the West in its financial crisis unless they are given more influence in running the global economy, a senior figure from Saudi Arabia’s ruling establishment said on Monday.

“The financial crisis and great recession were born in the West, developed in the West yet hit hard throughout the world,” former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal said in a speech to a business conference in Riyadh.

He said this showed the need to give emerging economies more representation and more authority in global bodies such as the Group of 20 nations, a forum of the world’s major industrialized countries, and the Financial Stability Board (FSB), which discusses regulation of banks and financial markets.

So far, however, organizations such as the FSB “have yet to take these new realities into consideration,” while the G20 is making little headway in coordinating economic policymaking around the world, he said.

Big emerging economies’ lack of influence in international bodies reduces their willingness to contribute money to fight the global crisis, the prince warned.

The International Monetary Fund is seeking to more than double its war chest by raising $600 billion in new resources to help countries deal with the fallout of the euro zone’s sovereign debt crisis.

“What we can be certain of is that large developing nations will not agree to provide additional funds without a greater say in the IMF, and this applies to all global economic governance organizations,” Prince Turki said.

The prince, who chairs the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, a major think tank, no longer holds government office but is still seen as influential, and his position outside government may give him room to speak more frankly in public than current Saudi officials.

He is a former ambassador to the United States and Britain.


His speech criticized Western governments for “leveraging up” their economies over the past six decades and letting their financial sectors spiral out of control, saying the United States and the European Union would continue to struggle with debt problems for five or 10 years.

Much of his criticism echoed comments by officials in China, another emerging economy that is being asked to help fight the global financial crisis.

Oman’s central bank governor told Reuters last week that his country was prepared to increase its contribution to the IMF.

In general, however, officials in the Gulf’s rich oil exporters have indicated they are in no rush to contribute funds to bail out the West, and expect Europe first to do more to resolve its debt crisis.

Prince Turki noted that the Saudi central bank’s holdings of roughly $360 billion in foreign securities, most of them in the form of U.S. Treasuries, helped to underpin the value of the U.S. dollar and the stability of the global economy.

He said his country would continue to play a stabilizing role but added that because it faced its own challenges, including the need to create jobs for a young population and cope with political strains across the Arab world, it would need in the future to focus more of its resources domestically and within the Middle East.

The Arab Monetary Fund, a regional body which lends to governments, and Saudi development funds such as the Islamic Development Bank need to be strengthened to help the Middle East develop economically, he said.

“We will continue to support our neighbors where we are able, including financially, but now we also face new exigencies of our own,” Turki said.

(Editing by Susan Fenton)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Lo-Hei Ride

It was to be our usual Tuesday ride on 17 Jan followed by an early lo-hei dinner for 8 die-hard GP Riders cyclists, namely Tomas, Peter, Arthur, Steve, Ernest, Leow, Donald and me. At about 7 pm, we rolled off from Aranda Club to the coastal road enroute Changi Village. Depending on our fitness and form, we do either 2 or 3 laps around the coastal road. The crème-de-la-crème of the group, Tomas, Arthur and Donald managed 2 and a half laps in pulsating pace while the rest including me completed in 2 laps at leisure pace.

Call it, Enter The Dragon or perhaps a tad early now…Bunny still calls the shot with some days left but this lo-hei dinner which was initiated by our captain, Tomas was nothing but everything we were looking forward to after our gruelling ride. Still smelling sweat, we immediately settled down at Airfield Restaurant in Changi Village. In between order, I even made the waitress to guarantee we will ‘huat’ (发) after taking their yu sheng and that we will only pay them after we have ‘huat’. She can only give me a giggle and promised me nothing. That burly male waiter who overheard our conversation was already on alert if we ever harboured any thought of skipping payment after our hearty meal later. Phew…nobody took us seriously and when the yu sheng was finally placed on our table, we just can’t wait to toss as high as possible and shout ourselves hoarse for the sake of prosperity like any typical Chinese who aspire to strike rich ala the ‘lo-hei’ way.

Our conversation continued during dinner with each of us taking a swipe at each other. And by the way, we had a new member with us whom we scooped up during the ride. His name is Gavin and very quickly, he was rubbing shoulders with us like buddies. This befits our GP Riders’ motto – Ride With Us! We welcome anyone to our fold, young or old.

Where we last left off, we went on to bestow a moniker to each other based on the somewhat distorted ‘Journey To The West’ characters. Steve, being the oldest and plausibly wisest member of the group by virtue of his flock of white hair is respectfully named ‘The Monk’ (和尚) and he still gets to keep his mane though. The mischievous ‘Monkey God’ (孙悟空) prized accolade went to Ernest but, is he the mischievous one? He looks the goody-goody sort of guy. And Leow, the youngest one in our group – he is named Ne Zha (哪吒) for his smaller built and boyish look which he graciously accepted. I earn the ‘Ox King’ (牛魔王) title, thanks but no thanks to my bruising three free falls in a day not too long ago, a dubious record yet to be broken and hopefully, never. The only lady in our group, Poh Kuan who missed the ride with us on last moment was the ‘Spidey Spirit’ (蜘蛛精) but we decided to up her status to ‘Goddess of Mercy’ (观音菩萨), a show of our gratitude to her for always making available that heavenly-send 100 Plus for us at end of every ride. ‘The-Man’ went to our undisputed number one rider, Arthur. Don’t ask why ‘The-Man’ moniker which has no relation to ‘Journey To The West’ but for now, he is ‘The-Man’. Only Peter and Tomas have yet to be named but soon, I believe they'll earn their badges too. But ‘Piggy’ (猪八戒) remains unclaimed, who deserves that accolade? No prize for the right answer.

Enough noise was made, lo-hei was done, we had our fills with savoury mee goreng & Hokkien mee and bottles of beer & cans of 100 plus were downed and we were ready to roll off to Aranda Club before calling it a day. When we finally reached Aranda Club, true to belief ‘Goddess of Mercy’ greeted us with a big bottle of 100 plus…so sweet of her. When we ride next, it will be the year of the Dragon. Gong Xi Fa Cai to all!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Untold Love Story of Aung San Suu Kyi

Michael Aris, Aung San Suu Kyi and their first son Alexander, in 1973 Photo: ARIS FAMILY COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

Personal Note: In Singapore, some of our politicians like to play to rhetoric tone, of willingness to sacrifice one's big salary to work for the people and much to my disgust, the minister's pay still remains a big debating subject, despite much efforts taken by the ruling party to meet varied expectations of the masses.

This noble lady, Aung San Suu Kyi whose sacrifices for her own country, Burma easily put our very own politicians to shame. Salary was never the topic, choosing between country and family was...and she chose the former.

I am proud to post her touching story by Rebecca Frayn, a writer and film-maker, 'The Lady’ which debuts on December 3, 2011.

Aung San Suu Kyi, whose story is told in a new film, went from devoted Oxford housewife to champion of Burmese democracy - but not without great personal sacrifice.

When I began to research a screenplay about Aung San Suu Kyi four years ago, I wasn’t expecting to uncover one of the great love stories of our time. Yet what emerged was a tale so romantic – and yet so heartbreaking – it sounded more like a pitch for a Hollywood weepie: an exquisitely beautiful but reserved girl from the East meets a handsome and passionate young man from the West.

For Michael Aris the story is a coup de foudre, and he eventually proposes to Suu amid the snow-capped mountains of Bhutan, where he has been employed as tutor to its royal family. For the next 16 years, she becomes his devoted wife and a mother-of-two, until quite by chance she gets caught up in politics on a short trip to Burma, and never comes home. Tragically, after 10 years of campaigning to try to keep his wife safe, Michael dies of cancer without ever being allowed to say goodbye.

I also discovered that the reason no one was aware of this story was because Dr Michael Aris had gone to great lengths to keep Suu’s family out of the public eye. It is only because their sons are now adults – and Michael is dead – that their friends and family feel the time has come to speak openly, and with great pride, about the unsung role he played.

The daughter of a great Burmese hero, General Aung San, who was assassinated when she was only two, Suu was raised with a strong sense of her father’s unfinished legacy. In 1964 she was sent by her diplomat mother to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, where her guardian, Lord Gore-Booth, introduced her to Michael. He was studying history at Durham but had always had a passion for Bhutan – and in Suu he found the romantic embodiment of his great love for the East. But when she accepted his proposal, she struck a deal: if her country should ever need her, she would have to go. And Michael readily agreed.

For the next 16 years, Suu Kyi was to sublimate her extraordinary strength of character and become the perfect housewife. When their two sons, Alexander and Kim, were born she became a doting mother too, noted for her punctiliously well-organised children’s parties and exquisite cooking. Much to the despair of her more feminist friends, she even insisted on ironing her husband’s socks and cleaning the house herself.

Then one quiet evening in 1988, when her sons were 12 and 14, as she and Michael sat reading in Oxford, they were interrupted by a phone call to say Suu’s mother had had a stroke.

She at once flew to Rangoon for what she thought would be a matter of weeks, only to find a city in turmoil. A series of violent confrontations with the military had brought the country to a standstill, and when she moved into Rangoon Hospital to care for her mother, she found the wards crowded with injured and dying students. Since public meetings were forbidden, the hospital had become the centre-point of a leaderless revolution, and word that the great General’s daughter had arrived spread like wildfire.

When a delegation of academics asked Suu to head a movement for democracy, she tentatively agreed, thinking that once an election had been held she would be free to return to Oxford again. Only two months earlier she had been a devoted housewife; now she found herself spearheading a mass uprising against a barbaric regime.

In England, Michael could only anxiously monitor the news as Suu toured Burma, her popularity soaring, while the military harassed her every step and arrested and tortured many of her party members. He was haunted by the fear that she might be assassinated like her father. And when in 1989 she was placed under house arrest, his only comfort was that it at least might help keep her safe.

Michael now reciprocated all those years Suu had devoted to him with a remarkable selflessness of his own, embarking on a high-level campaign to establish her as an international icon that the military would never dare harm. But he was careful to keep his work inconspicuous, because once she emerged as the leader of a new democracy movement, the military seized upon the fact that she was married to a foreigner as a basis for a series of savage – and often sexually crude – slanders in the Burmese press.

For the next five years, as her boys were growing into young men, Suu was to remain under house arrest and kept in isolation. She sustained herself by learning how to meditate, reading widely on Buddhism and studying the writings of Mandela and Gandhi. Michael was allowed only two visits during that period. Yet this was a very particular kind of imprisonment, since at any time Suu could have asked to be driven to the airport and flown back to her family.

But neither of them ever contemplated her doing such a thing. In fact, as a historian, even as Michael agonised and continued to pressurise politicians behind the scenes, he was aware she was part of history in the making. He kept on display the book she had been reading when she received the phone call summoning her to Burma. He decorated the walls with the certificates of the many prizes she had by now won, including the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. And above his bed he hung a huge photograph of her.

Inevitably, during the long periods when no communication was possible, he would fear Suu might be dead, and it was only the odd report from passers-by who heard the sound of her piano-playing drifting from the house that brought him peace of mind. But when the south-east Asian humidity eventually destroyed the piano, even this fragile reassurance was lost to him.

Then, in 1995, Michael quite unexpectedly received a phone call from Suu. She was ringing from the British embassy, she said. She was free again! Michael and the boys were granted visas and flew to Burma. When Suu saw Kim, her younger son, she was astonished to see he had grown into a young man. She admitted she might have passed him in the street. But Suu had become a fully politicised woman whose years of isolation had given her a hardened resolve, and she was determined to remain in her country, even if the cost was further separation from her family.

The journalist Fergal Keane, who has met Suu several times, describes her as having a core of steel. It was the sheer resilience of her moral courage that filled me with awe as I wrote my screenplay for The Lady. The first question many women ask when they hear Suu’s story is how she could have left her children. Kim has said simply: “She did what she had to do.” Suu Kyi herself refuses to be drawn on the subject, though she has conceded that her darkest hours were when “I feared the boys might be needing me”.

That 1995 visit was the last time Michael and Suu were ever allowed to see one another. Three years later, he learnt he had terminal cancer. He called Suu to break the bad news and immediately applied for a visa so that he could say goodbye in person. When his application was rejected, he made over 30 more as his strength rapidly dwindled. A number of eminent figures – among them the Pope and President Clinton – wrote letters of appeal, but all in vain. Finally, a military official came to see Suu. Of course she could say goodbye, he said, but to do so she would have to return to Oxford.

The implicit choice that had haunted her throughout those 10 years of marital separation had now become an explicit ultimatum: your country or your family. She was distraught. If she left Burma, they both knew it would mean permanent exile – that everything they had jointly fought for would have been for nothing. Suu would call Michael from the British embassy when she could, and he was adamant that she was not even to consider it.

When I met Michael’s twin brother, Anthony, he told me something he said he had never told anyone before. He said that once Suu realised she would never see Michael again, she put on a dress of his favourite colour, tied a rose in her hair, and went to the British embassy, where she recorded a farewell film for him in which she told him that his love for her had been her mainstay. The film was smuggled out, only to arrive two days after Michael died.

For many years, as Burma’s human rights record deteriorated, it seemed the Aris family’s great self-sacrifice might have been in vain. Yet in recent weeks the military have finally announced their desire for political change. And Suu’s 22-year vigil means she is uniquely positioned to facilitate such a transition – if and when it comes – exactly as Mandela did so successfully for South Africa.

As they always believed it would, Suu and Michael’s dream of democracy may yet become a reality.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Guan Eng says national debt ‘dangerous’, potentially disastrous

Is our own government a responsible one? If we spend the way our neighbour is spending with borrowed money, we should be raising red flag too. Are we not? If we are not like our neighbour, why are we still complaining, anything from A to Z? Remember, we don't have oil and gas that shoot out from the ground.

By Shazwan Mustafa Kamal

The Malaysian Insider
Jan 11, 2012

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 11 — Massive borrowing and irresponsible spending by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government will result in Malaysia becoming a fully indebted nation before the end of the decade, Lim Guan Eng said today.

The Penang chief minister said that Putrajaya’s debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio has increased yearly from 53.1 per cent in 2010 to 53.8 per cent last year and is expected to hit 54.8 per cent this year.

“This is extremely dangerous, and even more disastrous when coupled with statistics from Bank Negara’s Annual Report 2010, which revealed that Malaysia’s household debt at the end of 2010 was RM581 billion, or 76 per cent of GDP, thus giving us the dubious honour of having the second-highest level of household debt in Asia, after South Korea.

“In absolute terms, federal government debt rose by 71 per cent in four years to RM456 billion at (the) end (of) 2011 from RM266 billion at end (of) 2007,” said Lim in a statement today.

The DAP secretary-general said by following the same expansion rate, national debt would be a projected RM780 million by 2016 and RM1.3 trillion by 2020.

Lim’s remarks are in response to a statement by Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) distinguished fellow Mohd Ariff Abdul Kareem, who warned that federal government revenue was growing too slowly to keep up with its borrowings which hit 53.1 per cent of GDP in 2010.

Mohd Ariff told The Malaysian Insider recently that Malaysia’s national debt will hit 100 per cent of the GDP by 2019 should Putrajaya continue to borrow more than it earns. He said while the current size of government debt relative to GDP was not troubling, the pace of its growth in recent years was cause for concern.

Debt-to-GDP ratio jumped from 41.4 per cent in 2008 to 53.1 per cent in 2010 while government debt grew 14.6 per cent in 2008 and 18.3 per cent in 2009, far outpacing the country’s GDP growth, Ariff had said.

Lim added that a stagnation in salaries, coupled with increased prices for basic commodities such as sugar, eggs, and bread, will further result in Malaysians becoming even more debt-laden.

The Bagan MP said that MIER’s projections that Malaysia could end up becoming bankrupt by 2019 showed the need for new federal government, one that should be led by Pakatan Rakyat (PR).

He said that PR has successfully “managed” finances in states such as Penang.

“Penang managed to reduce (its) state debt from RM630 million in March 8, 2008 to only RM30 million as at end of October 2011. This represents a debt reduction of 95 per cent, or RM600 million, which is the highest debt reduction of any state in Malaysia’s history.

“Clearly, Malaysians who wish to have a better life for themselves and their future generations must make a choice between a government that is spendthrift and that borrows irresponsibly without being able to make the pie grow bigger, or a government that is prudent and transparent that will put the concerns of the rakyat first,” Lim added.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Extravagant Hopes of 2008 Haunt Obama in 2012

This article is taken from a source.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

Four years ago this week, a young and inspirational senator who promised to turn history’s page swept the Iowa caucuses and began his irresistible rise to the White House.

Barack Obama was unlike any candidate the country had seen before. More than a mere politician, he became a cultural icon, “the biggest celebrity in the world,” as a John McCain ad accurately if mischievously described him. He was the object of near adoration among the young, launching what often felt like a religious revival. Artists poured out musical compositions devoted to his victory in a rich variety of forms, from reggae and hip-hop to the Celtic folk song. (My personal favorite: “There’s no one as Irish as Barack O’Bama.”) Electoral contests rarely hold out the possibility of making all things new, but Obama’s supporters in large numbers fervently believed that 2008 was exactly such a campaign.

As the attention of the politically minded has focused on the rather more down-to-earth contests in Iowa and New Hampshire that will help determine which Republican will face Obama in November, let us ponder what the coming year will bring for someone who must now seek re-election as a mere mortal.

Obama’s largest problem is not the daunting list of difficulties that have left the country understandably dispirited: the continuing sluggishness of the economy, the broken political culture of Washington, the anxiety over the prospects of America’s future power and prosperity.

On each of these matters, Obama has plausible answers and, judging by improvements in his poll ratings since September, he has made headway in getting the country to accept them.

Most Americans still believe that Obama inherited rather than caused the economic turmoil. Barring another crisis in Europe, there is a decent chance of somewhat better times by Election Day. Obama’s fall offensive against Republicans in Congress has paid dividends. Voters seem inclined to blame Washington’s dysfunction on the GOP, not on a president they still rather like. Most also think Obama’s foreign policy has put the nation on a steadier course. To the extent that bellicosity from the Republicans—notably from Mitt Romney—portends a return to George W. Bush’s foreign policy, Obama will enjoy an advantage. Ron Paul’s strength in Iowa and New Hampshire suggests that there are even Republicans who are exhausted with foreign military adventures.

For all these reasons, Democrats are far more bullish on the president’s re-election chances than they were even a few months ago, and, for what it’s worth, I put the odds in his favor. Yet the threat that should most concern Obama may not be any of the particulars that usually decide elections but rather the inevitable clash between the extravagant hopes of 2008 and the messy reality of 2012.

In traveling around Iowa and New Hampshire over the last few weeks, I have been struck by the number of Democrats and independents who still more or less want Obama to win and deeply fear the consequences of a government dominated by Republicans. But having made this clear, they then bring up the ways in which they cannot summon the emotions on Obama’s behalf this year that they felt the first time around.

Some point to disappointment over his failure to confront the Republicans early enough and hard enough. How, they ask, could Obama possibly have expected cooperation from conservatives? Others are frustrated that he couldn’t bring Washington together, as he said he would. Still others point to real Obama achievements, including the stimulus and especially the health care law, and ask why he was unable to sell their merits to a majority of the electorate. And then there are those who wonder why the malefactors of finance have faced so little accountability.

Few of these voters would ever support a Republican, and most will turn out dutifully for Obama again. But a president who won election with only 52.9 percent of the vote does not have a lot of margin. He needs to worry not just about issues but also about the spirit and morale of his supporters. In their jaunty song on Obama’s behalf four years ago, the alternative reggae band Michael Franti & Spearhead promised a country that would “soar through the sky like an eagle” and saw Obama as “seeking finds of a new light.”

These are not the standards of normal politics. Can voters who supported someone as a transcendent figure re-elect him as a normal, if resilient, political leader? This is Obama’s challenge.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group