Obama's Maria Callas Days

Barack Obama has 2,000 songs on his iPod but there is little doubt what he's now playing.

A short while ago, he said: “I’m not a big opera buff in terms of going to opera, but there are days where Maria Callas is exactly what I need.”

But could even that soprano soothe the nerves of a president whose majority in the House of Representatives has just been swept away by a red tide?

We shouldn’t count him out. In a sign that he remains a sculptor of the zeitgeist, he revived a wonderful word by describing his drubbing as a “shellacking”.

Shellac, we soon discovered, is a varnish based on a resin secreted by the lac beetle.

The image of giant Republican beetles oozing chemicals over the dome of the US Congress is now planted in the imagination of the Democrat warriors he will need to rally for the 2012 presidential fight.

But when he pulls out the iPod earplugs and looks at his mantelpiece, he may notice that 2009 Nobel Peace Prize he was handed to the surprise of everyone, including himself. He now has the chance to earn it.

With Congress gridlocked, there is little chance of him getting to pass bold legislation. Past presidents have responded to domestic quagmires by throwing their energy into foreign policy.

He knows that the sight of Air Force One landing in foreign capitals will trigger accusations that he is ignoring US workers and their economic woes. But if he had followed the logic of this argument he would not have touched healthcare reform until his second term; instead, he chose to act as if this was his one shot at the presidency and passed transformative legislation which even a Republican House is unlikely to be able to unravel.

A new push for peace in the Middle East would not be a guaranteed bellyflop into diplomatic disaster. Recent efforts to secure a lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians have taken place in the second term of a presidency, when the office-holder is considered a lame duck and intransigent parties can sit back and wait for his successor to arrive.

But, when even the British Foreign Secretary is warning that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution is closing, fresh action would not be an indulgent adventure but an urgent act to prevent a new chapter of catastrophe.

Just as President James Polk (1845-1849) served just one term but acquired California and made the US a continent-crossing nation, Obama now has the chance to secure a lasting legacy that will provide greater solace and comfort in retirement than even a personal recital from Ms Callas could achieve.

A Saturday column