American Power in Theory and Practice
"My name is Barack Obama, I’m a black man and I’m president of the United States,” Obama once told his staff, as he pondered a risky domestic policy choice. “Of course I feel lucky.” This was unusual. Obama was not one for melodrama. His presidency was historic—and implausible—because of his ethnicity: his middle name was Hussein, and his last name was easily mistaken for that of Osama bin Laden. He governed through memorable crises, domestic and foreign. There were landmark successes and some notable failures. But all of these happened within the context of regular political order. Obama’s campaign promise of “hope and change” seemed pretty dramatic at the time; the expectations ran as high among liberals as they would later for Donald Trump’s populist radicalism among some conservatives. And yet, Obama was not a radical. He was an adventurous moderate at home and a cautious realist overseas. He was careful, sometimes to a fault, thoughtful, subtle, and restrained at a time when those qualities were not highly valued by the public or the media.
It is, of course, far too early to give a measured evaluation of Obama’s presidency. But intrepid journalists always try to sum things up. (I did, too, at the end of the Clinton presidency). Peter Baker’s Obama is a coffee-table book, chock-a-block with stunning photos, that rises above its genre thanks to the quality of the author’s reporting and analysis. Baker had a front-row seat for the Obama presidency, as White House correspondent for The New York Times. Jonathan Chait’s Audacity is a smart, partisan account of Obama’s domestic successes—and of the political forces, on the left and the right, that prevented a rational accounting of his achievements as they were taking place. Michael D’Antonio’s A Consequential President doesn’t break new ground, but it gives a more human cast to Obama’s presidency than Chait’s austere and policy-centric portrait.
Chait does get the nature of Obama’s domestic policy right: “Many of Obama’s policies borrowed from and updated the moderate Republicanism that its old party had forsaken.” The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, took its core principles, the individual mandate and health insurance markets (called “exchanges”), from the conservative Heritage Foundation. Obama’s quiet but profound shift away from fossil fuels had its roots in the environmental policies of Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush. His essential foreign policy realism also flowed from Bush the Elder’s administration. The Obama Doctrine—“Don’t do stupid shit”—was the foreign policy equivalent of the Hippocratic oath, a welcome humility after George W. Bush’s naive idealism and military overreach. Obama’s failures, in Libya and Syria, came when he wandered away from his doctrine. Obama didn’t break up the behemoth Wall Street banks, even after they had demonstrated their tendency toward moral hazard; he chose instead to regulate them, a policy that elicited some initial prudence from the banks but will be judged fairly only in the fullness of time. His greatest success, the 2009 stimulus plan, was a carefully constructed, centrist combination of tax cuts and public works.
Obama made the reasonable assumption that full-scale U.S. military intervention in the Middle East would only make matters worse.
But D’Antonio notes that the Dow Jones industrial average dropped some 300 points the day the stimulus was passed, and Chait notes that in a 2010 Pew poll, only a third of Americans asked said they believed the program had “helped the job situation.” The inability of the public and the media to logically evaluate Obama’s programs when they were proposed, and even after they were enacted, was a striking aspect of his presidency. Was it racism, political extremism, or—perhaps worse—a steady decline in the American public’s ability to understand or care about complicated issues? The fact that the default position of the news media had moved from skepticism to cynicism—implying that every political act was a form of partisan gamesmanship—certainly played a large part.
The reaction to Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, serves as a case study in the difficulties Obama faced as president, and the difficulties in evaluating his record even now. “The exaggerated metaphor,” the prescient conservative populist Pat Buchanan once observed, “is really the staple of American political language.” By the time Obama came to office, the exaggerated metaphor had devolved into flagrant misrepresentation. Republicans called Obama’s health-care plan “socialized medicine,” even though it depended on free markets and private insurance companies. Former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin discerned nonexistent “death panels” in the legislation. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called it “the single worst piece of legislation passed in the last 50 years.” William Kristol, then the editor in chief of the conservative Weekly Standard, observed, “The coming Obamacare train wreck is endemic to big government liberalism.”
There were serious flaws in the legislation. The state health-care markets were too narrowly drawn; they should have been regional, which would have made them more competitive. They also should have been open not just to individuals but also to all businesses, which would have increased the risk pool. The plans themselves were too restrictive, mandating too many required services; simple, catastrophic coverage would have made the program more attractive to young people. But “the coming Obamacare train wreck” hasn’t come. Although insurers dropped out and some states were reduced to offering only one health plan, an additional 20 million people now have health-care coverage. Obama also made some progress toward cost containment, by giving financial incentives to health-care providers that moved away from inefficient “fee for service” systems and instead paid doctors salaries. As Chait observes, more than three-fifths of consumers still have a choice among three or more plans. He goes on: “Even at their higher levels, premiums will be almost exactly what the Congressional Budget Office had forecast when Obamacare passed.”
The struggle of the Republicans in the House of Representatives to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act is a testimony to the program’s essential worth; it can easily be repaired. But somehow, the public perception of Obamacare was far more dire than the reality. One problem was that the media were unable or unwilling to clarify complicated policy issues. Republicans could decry it using simple sentences; compound sentences with abstruse subclauses were required to defend it. Another problem was that Obama’s name was attached to the program; polls consistently found that more people favored “the Affordable Care Act” than “Obamacare.” To make matters worse, compromise that it was, the act had few passionate defenders on the left—which truly favored socialized medicine.
But Obama himself, often a great communicator, was part of the problem, too. He tried to sell the program using its most popular focus-grouped elements: the prohibition on coverage caps, the ban on denying coverage due to preexisting conditions, and the provision for children up to the age of 26 to remain on their parents’ plans. At the same time, he allowed a central misperception of the program to stand: that Obamacare was a giveaway for the indigent. In fact, the poor were already covered through Medicaid, whereas his was a program for uninsured working people and the self-employed.
Strangely, for a president proud of his self-discipline, there was a lot of loose talk.
Obama’s other domestic successes were similarly muffled. He unveiled reform programs in education, such as Race to the Top, a competitive grant, that were opposed by the teachers’ unions, perhaps the most powerful Democratic special interest group. He acknowledged that Head Start, the early childhood education program that was universally assumed to be successful by Democrats, had serious problems—a comprehensive government study showed that it was having a minuscule impact—and needed to be reformed. His support for alternative energy, especially through tax credits embedded in the 2009 stimulus package, helped wind and solar power surge toward the critical mass that will make Trump’s efforts to revive the coal industry irrelevant. The response of the Obama administration’s Justice Department to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was notable for its balance: the officer was exonerated, but the city and the police department were found to be guilty of systemic racism. As was the case with so much of Obama’s presidency, neither the left nor the right was satisfied.
Overseas, Obama avoided major disasters during a period of historic turmoil, especially in the Middle East. The region’s straight-line national borders were beginning to unravel, 100 years after the colonial powers drew them. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq had hastened the chaos, but a radical transformation was probably inevitable. Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen were theories more than countries. Afghanistan and Pakistan were rendered perpetually unstable in 1893 by the Durand Line, drawn across the Hindu Kush, which divided the Pashtun nation and led to Taliban rebellions on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. Obama privately regarded Pakistan as the most dangerous place on earth, with not only the Taliban insurgency in the north but also guerrilla movements elsewhere—to say nothing of its estimated 120 nuclear weapons. Worse, this ostensible ally had a history of military coups and a penchant for harboring terrorists. Adding to the region’s chaos, Saudi Arabian charities funded radical Salafists, such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Meanwhile, tensions between the Shiite power Iran and its Sunni neighbor Saudi Arabia devolved into proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.
Obama made the reasonable assumption that full-scale U.S. military intervention in the region would only make matters worse. Instead, he expanded the use of special operations forces, drone strikes, and cyberwarfare to limit terrorist threats to the United States. His most important and riskiest diplomatic action in the region, the deal restricting Iran’s nuclear program, had the potential in the long run to give the United States leverage—and neutrality—in the Shiite-Sunni struggle. The hope was that Iran’s essentially moderate and middle-class populace would eventually compel the theocratic military dictatorship to curb its nuclear excesses and perhaps even cooperate with the United States in areas of mutual interest—namely, the struggle against ISIS and the Taliban. Although the Iranian government did abide by the terms of the deal, its truculence has made this marriage of inconvenience near impossible in the short run. But in the future, a more balanced U.S. stance in the Shiite-Sunni conflict remains a possibility.
Chait, clearly more comfortable on domestic turf, dismisses Obama’s foreign and national security policy in one cursory chapter. Afghanistan is barely mentioned; the growing centrality of cyberwarfare is barely acknowledged. He faults Obama for not creating a “transformational” foreign policy, “a Monroe Doctrine or Rooseveltian Big Stick,” but doctrines are highly overrated in a multipolar world. And at any rate, Obama did have his Hippocratic creed, an important corrective after the recklessness of the Bush administration.
Indeed, the Obama Doctrine probably should have had a corollary: “Don’t say stupid shit, either.” Strangely, for a president proud of his self-discipline, there was a lot of loose talk, and it often got him into trouble. It was imprudent for the leader of the most powerful country in the world to say that Bashar al-Assad “must go” in the midst of Syria’s complicated civil war, and then do little to achieve that goal. It was foolish, likewise, to establish a “redline” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and then not enforce it. When Assad used such weapons after Obama departed, Trump demonstrated via cruise missile that the United States could take proportionate action if the line was crossed. The Obama administration announced a “reset” with Russia and a “pivot” to Asia, both of which proved more rhetoric than reality. The president was more controlled when it came to domestic policy, but he still occasionally lapsed into unnecessary overstatement: “No matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise to the American people: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.” As it happened, a relatively small number of people who had policies that didn’t include the coverage mandated by the Affordable Care Act weren’t able to keep their doctors or their plans—which gave Republicans additional fodder for their misrepresentations of the bill.
Still, despite those stumbles, Obama’s personal style was meticulous. He studied hard and worried a lot. Baker reports that Obama told his staff after months of deliberation about the troop surge in Afghanistan, “I’ve got more deeply in the woods than a president should, and now you guys need to solve this.” His flagrant intellectuality sometimes annoyed Republican leaders in Congress, including the Speaker of the House. “President Obama was on the telephone, and John Boehner had grown weary of the long-winded lecturing,” Baker reports. “Finally, Boehner put the phone down on his desk and lit up a cigarette while the president kept talking. Mitch McConnell had similar conversations with Obama and, while he never put the phone down, he sometimes watched baseball on television while the president went on and on.”
At other times, especially when the media demanded a histrionic response to an outrage that Obama didn’t consider outrageous, he could seem maddeningly aloof. After the Deepwater Horizon oil platform blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, the Democratic political strategist James Carville grew frustrated. “He just looks like he is not involved in this,” he said on television. “Man, you got to get down here and take control of this and put somebody in charge of this thing and get this thing moving. We’re about to die down here.”
Obama’s diffidence after terrorist attacks was more problematic. His “robotic stoicism,” as Baker puts it, was meant to be tactical. The president believed that the media, and political rivals such as Trump, were overplaying the threat. Terrorism was a low-grade fever that would spike occasionally despite the United States’ best efforts. In a speech at West Point in May 2014, he seemed to signal a downgrading of the war on terrorism, saying, “The threshold for military action must be higher.” The timing was unfortunate. ISIS began taking broad swaths of Iraq and Syria that spring.
But Obama did take terrorism seriously—and reacted proportionately. He ratified Bush’s domestic data-mining program, despite the opposition of civil liberties advocates. According to Baker, he once told his aides, without irony, “The C.I.A. gets what it needs.” Obama kept the special operations pressure on, ordering the raid on bin Laden’s compound and targeted drone strikes, including the killing in Yemen of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who had inspired terrorists around the world. But Obama also understood that some of the so-called terrorist attacks—such as the killing of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida—were better categorized as mass killings by deranged individuals. Obama stubbornly refused to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” He also foolishly played golf on Martha’s Vineyard the day after the American journalist James Foley was beheaded by ISIS, an act on Obama’s part that seemed to ignore the enormity of the outrage.
Obama spent every day of his presidency at war.
When an unnamed aide celebrated Obama’s subtlety and sophistication in supporting the attack on Libya by telling The New Yorker that the president was “leading from behind”—the Europeans launched the air strikes, with U.S. support—it became a metaphor oft-used by his opponents, a euphemism for cowardice. Over time, the reason for Obama’s reticence became manifest: Europe and the Arab League had neither the interest nor the ability to build a nation after Muammar al-Qaddafi was dispatched. Libya became Obama’s failure.
In the end, Obama paid far more attention to foreign and national security policy than did his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, but then again, they governed in different eras. Clinton assumed the presidency directly after the end of the Cold War, a time of unprecedented global quiet and American prosperity. His training, as governor of Arkansas, and his personal interests were domestic. He thought that the greatest American contribution to global stability was the expansion of economic growth through globalization—economic policy was foreign policy, he often said. Clinton knew little about the military (he famously had to learn how to salute), and it wasn’t until late in his first term, with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s success in ending the Balkan wars, that he began to focus on events overseas. He would be criticized for allowing the growth of al Qaeda in his second term, and in retrospect, a more aggressive effort to destroy bin Laden’s operations in Afghanistan might have been warranted. Clinton admitted privately that he would have liked to test his mettle in a crisis, but he was lucky: history didn’t give him one.
Obama, by contrast, spent every day of his presidency at war. He came to the office inexperienced but interested in foreign policy. His ambitions greatly exceeded Clinton’s. Before the economic crash of 2008 forced his attention on domestic recovery, he hoped his greatest contribution would be to change the United States’ unilateral and bellicose posture toward the rest of the world, particularly the Muslim world. The address he delivered in Cairo in June 2009 was a plea for a new, postcolonial order in the region. Obama saw himself playing a dramatic role in this regard. He hoped that his rise to power would herald the end of the era of Western condescension toward the rest of the world. Instead, the world seemed to turn in a different direction: inward, toward a populist tribalism that represented the opposite of his cosmopolitan vision.
All presidents make mistakes. Obama made fewer than most, but his were magnified by the extreme partisanship of his era—and by the expectations he brought with him. His model was Abraham Lincoln, who also governed a divided country. He used Lincoln’s Bible to take the oath at his inauguration. But in the end, Obama was not a transcendent leader. No one could be. He was an admirable leader, whose eloquence could lift the country in hard times. His responses to the shootings in Sandy Hook, Charleston, and Dallas were personal and stunning. His efforts at gun control, by contrast, were a complete failure; the power of the National Rifle Association was curiously unassailable, given that most Americans agreed with the modest reforms Obama proposed. But the clarity of his mind, his relentless rationality, cut through the usual political boilerplate and bromides. Here he is explaining why the use of force was sometimes necessary, when he received a Nobel Peace Prize he knew he didn’t deserve:
As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak—nothing passive—nothing naïve—in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
But the simple power of the speech was lost amid public controversy. The prize was awarded, conservatives said, as a sigh of European relief after the bellicose presidency of Bush. Some on the left carped that Obama was hardly worthy of a peace prize: he was leading two wars, and mounting a major counterterrorist campaign, when he spoke in Oslo. In the end, a thick and noxious cloud of partisanship and pettiness cast a shadow on everything Obama did.