Expectations of Barack Obama’s presidency perhaps have been unfair — expecting him to deliver to a better place an America that had seen its military, economic and moral preeminence badly shattered during the preceding tenure of George W. Bush.
But great challenges are actually what make up the stuff of great leaders, and regrettably, Barack Obama — though mesmerizing on many levels — has demonstrated thus far more of an ability to deliver policy outcomes generated by inertia and incrementalism rather than changing the laws of political gravity, which is what he must do if he is to succeed in office.
Barack Obama can’t be measured by the same stick as most American presidents. He must be better and do more. We are at a time of historical discontinuity in U.S. history — a point at which America’s global social contract with other of the world’s stakeholders must be renegotiated and when America must reinvent itself, its economy and its relationship with citizens on the domestic front. As Walter Russell Mead recently proclaimed at a New America Foundation event grading Obama’s performance, “Being president is really hard.”
Obama has failed to realize that the kind of “change” he promised during his campaign is actually the kind of change the nation needs. During the global financial crisis, he elected to ally himself with the architects of the previous financial order — Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and their followers. And these neoliberal practitioners delivered a financial recovery course that helped Wall Street and yet again sacrificed the interests of the American middle class, just as they did in the past.
When it has come to correcting the disaster of the national security portfolio he inherited from the Bush White House, Obama talked up a good vision of changing the way gravity was working in the Middle East — reaching out to problematic world leaders, establishing a workable course in Palestine-Israel relations, helping to create a credible vision of better opportunity for frustrated youth in the underdeveloped world. But when it came to action, his administration has been as paralyzed worse than the last.
Obama, much like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, inherited a presidency that was in bad shape. Nixon, who wanted to be president in 1960 when the U.S. was seen as globally ascendant, got a Vietnam-crippled White House and had to find ways to leverage American power in the world. He did this by changing global gravitational patterns and ending the isolation of Communist China.
Reagan, in the aftermath of the Iran hostage crisis, took steps to be both firm and diplomatic with the Soviet Union — simultaneously starting a new U.S. military arms buildup while committing to serious nuclear arms talks and ending the U.S. grain embargo against the Soviets.
Barack Obama has seen his efforts at changing gravity in the Middle East, which is the defining challenge for the United States in this era, blow up on him. The prime minister of a small ally and client state of the U.S., Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, became the “Khrushchev” for the Obama administration, highlighting more than America’s enemies the limits to Obama’s power abroad. Obama’s efforts on Iran have been disappointing, both because of circumstances inside Iran and also the lack of quality statecraft out of the White House in constructing an alternative and compelling course that might seduce Iran out of its nuclear ambitions.
On other fronts, China’s economic mercantilism and political opportunism have become something that Obama seems to acquiesce to more than resist.
The world is complicated, dangerous and without the equilibrium and stability that America used to enjoy with much of the world. Obama was supposed to fix all of that — and fast.
He may still do it. According to Richard Wolffe’s campaign biography, “Renegade: The Making of a President,” Obama thrives most when he is losing. Like Michael Jordan on the basketball court, Obama wants to come in and change things up and hopefully save the day.
We are waiting for Barack “Michael Jordan” Obama to realize he is really down on the scoreboard and to get strategic, demonstrate an ability to change the way the political game is played, and to begin to achieve results.
The world doubts America’s ability to achieve its objectives, and as soon as Obama begins to deliver on things the nation says it is going to do, his presidential scorecard could dramatically improve.
Steven Clemons directs the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog the Washington Note.