Jan 12, 2010

Obama: rhetoric vs reality

Dr Maleeha Lodhi

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.

Barack Obama completes his first year as president with his public approval ratings having fallen from a high of 68 per cent when he entered office to 47 per cent.

Is this common to American presidents after their first 365 days in power? Does this set a trend line that will persist? Can Obama turn this situation around? The answer to the first two questions is no, not necessarily. The first year certainly sets the momentum and direction for subsequent years, but it isn't the only determinant of the rest of the presidential term.

As for the third question, much depends on what Obama does from now on, especially how he manages the economy and handles the two conflicts that America is entangled in.

The approval ratings place Obama in the company of former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, who saw public support decline at the end of their first year in the White House. The job ratings for George W Bush went up in his first year and then plunged to a historic low at the end of his presidency. In sharp contrast, Clinton left office with the highest approval ratings for any post-World War II president.

Three aspects of the Obama presidency are significant in assessing his record so far: a difficult inheritance; the unrealistic expectations raised by his historic victory; and his pursuit of a liberal agenda at home while yielding to the Right on national-security strategy and conducting a foreign policy on key geopolitical issues marked more by continuity than a break from the past.

President Obama inherited a daunting agenda from a troubled legacy that sharply constrained his room to manoeuvre: two divisive and protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the severest economic crisis since the Depression and a level of debt incompatible with America's status as the world's pre-eminent economic power.

In this backdrop, he devoted much of his attention to domestic affairs: addressing the economic crisis and trying to revive confidence. He made reasonable progress: passing a stimulus package and halting a financial free fall. But high jobless figures at yearend and a yawning fiscal deficit served as reminders of the obstacles ahead to achieving an economic recovery.

Obama is also on the verge of securing a healthcare bill – his signature reform measure that represents a significant piece of social-welfare legislation. This may not go as far as the liberal wing of his party may have wished, but will still mark an important accomplishment for Obama. All told, not a bad domestic record, given the weak hand he inherited.

Why, then, have his job approval numbers steadily dropped during the year? Part of the answer lies in the extraordinary expectations that Obama himself raised by his promise of being a "transformational president." As campaign rhetoric confronted the sobering realities of governance, the inevitable compromises that were made left many of his supporters disappointed and his critics accusing him of naiveté about statecraft.

In the transition from a powerful orator of soaring campaign rhetoric to the real world of tough policy choices, questions were raised about whether Obama had the determination to pursue the agenda he had set. And priorities there were aplenty, inviting the charge that he had scattered his focus. Critics portrayed him as a leader good at launching initiatives but inconsistent in executing or making them work.

Meanwhile, his "lenient" treatment of bankers in the financial bailout, failure to close down Guantanamo and watering down of the healthcare plan evoked dismay within the Democratic base, amid cries of betrayal of the "transformational agenda." This was exemplified by an editorial in the New Republic which said: "A presidency that was born in enthusiasm has displayed little evidence of it" in the first year.

But it was in the realm of national security and foreign policy that his first year fell woefully short of the promise. In his initial days in office President Obama offered a fresh start to America's engagement with the world, pledging to temper power by "humility and restraint," reach out to the Muslim world and place a greater emphasis on diplomacy to secure its goals.

Other than the welcome change in tone, this did not translate, in practice, into a substantially new approach. Nowhere was this more evident than in the revised strategy on Afghanistan. Obama's decision to escalate the war marked continuity rather than a break with the Bush paradigm.

Together with other decisions (Guantanamo), this suggested that on security policy Obama conceded to the Right rather than respond to the liberal base of his party. The inclination to pursue a conservative international agenda was also signalled by the lack of progress made in the Middle East peace process. Washington's unwillingness to press Israel to halt its settlements in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank meant that the Obama administration failed the litmus test of change in relations with the Muslim world promised by his inspiring Cairo speech.

But it was on Afghanistan that President Obama made the most consequential decision of his first year. Some American historians invoked the Vietnam parallel to compare him to President Lyndon B Johnson, who set out to "remake America" by an ambitious domestic reform agenda but whose administration ended up being derailed by the Vietnam disaster.

A telling cautionary tale for Obama came in a recently published book, Lessons in Disaster, which chronicled the fateful decisions that led to the Vietnam abyss. This offered valuable lessons about how, where and when to apply American power around the world.

Its author, Gordon M Goldstein, subsequently wrote a column in which he summarised those lessons. One of them, "politics is the enemy of strategy," merits mention. In a polarised political environment, Goldstein wrote, some constituencies are left dissatisfied but presidents should base their decisions on strategic grounds and not let politics cloud military decisions.

Obama's surge-and-exit announcement on Afghanistan sought to placate divergent opinion is a remarkable display of politics determining strategy. In effectively yielding to the hawks on a strategy of military escalation in Afghanistan and ratcheting up drone attacks in Pakistan, Obama staked his political future on a perilous course that risked destabilising the region and also jeopardising his presidency.

An important factor in the way Obama responded to foreign policy challenges in his first year was the reality of functioning in a world that was markedly different from that many of his predecessors operated in. This is a world that has seen a shift in global power, the rise of China and the emergence of a more multi-polar environment.

In several speeches President Obama spoke of the need to build coalitions of consent and pursue multilateral solutions. This reflected an acknowledgement of the limits of US power and the imperative of cooperation in an interdependent world.

Noting this, a prominent American analyst, Robert Kagan remarked that Obama and his foreign policy team, instead of attempting to perpetuate US primacy, have been seeking to manage what they regard as America's unavoidable decline relative to other great powers.

A global context in which the US on its own can no longer determine geopolitical outcomes helps to explain Obama's difficulties in pursuing his foreign policy goals, as, for example. in rallying international support for tougher sanctions against Iran on the nuclear issue.

It is in this complex international setting that the war in Afghanistan is expected to be the make-or-break foreign policy issue for Obama's presidency. The defining domestic issue will be his ability to engender a job-creating economic recovery and manage the deficit, which critics say he was distracted from addressing by his healthcare initiative. Dealing with the deficit may decide more than Obama's political fortunes. It could also determine America's ability to maintain its position as the world's predominant military power.

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