- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Let’s just look at the facts. When President Obama took office, the economy was teetering on the edge of the abyss. Washington was complicit in pushing it toward the disaster that loomed. We were hemorrhaging jobs. America’s international reputation was in tatters. We were bogged down in one indefensible war in Iraq and an unwinnable one in Afghanistan.
Within 20 months, the new president — despite an utterly uncooperative, obstructionist opposition party, despite the extraordinarily dire and complex challenges he inherited — pulled the economy back from catastrophe. He passed historic legislation that preserved millions of jobs. Obama and his team worked to restore Wall Street to profitability while at the same time passing sweeping financial reforms to help reduce the risk of calamities in the future. He and his team helped to get the U.S. auto industry back on its feet. He and his team began the work of fixing a broken U.S. health care system that was putting millions of Americans and our entire economy at risk. He has met his goals for ending the U.S. combat presence in Iraq. He has, for better or worse, expended enormous effort to rethink our presence in Afghanistan and redoubled efforts to contain the even greater threats emanating from Pakistan, next door. He has committed the U.S. to active engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, something his predecessor ignored for years. He has launched an effort to eliminate nuclear weapons and if that sounds wide-eyed and implausible, he made it more real with a new arms limitation agreement with Russia. He has actively engaged with the world, realigned our international relationships both bilaterally and through mechanisms like the G20 to reflect a new international power reality. And he has done much to restore America’s image and standing in the world.
Not bad for less than two years work. And yet, to read the papers, watch the news or, worse, look into the president’s eyes, he seems beaten down, on the ropes. His inner circle is leaving in droves. He is increasingly unpopular. His supporters are filled with doubt and some with voters’ remorse. A major election defeat is looming if the paid prognosticators are to be believed. Some who work with him think that, recently, he’s been dealing with something like depression, at a loss to cope with these setbacks.
There is a clear disconnect here: How can it be that a president who, objectively, must be regarded as at least fairly successful is in such rough shape? Is it us or is it him? Is he a victim of circumstances or does he have a glass jaw?
There is no one answer of course, there are multiple factors in play.
First, despite all the administration’s efforts, the economy is still stagnant. While we are not losing jobs we are not creating them fast enough. Worse, the two thirds of Americans who own homes have seen what for most of them is their largest asset drained of value. Some of the biggest problems we face — the deficit, the remaining problems in our broken in the health care system — are unaddressed. Globally, for the first time in American history, we are actually losing relative power. Worse, we are coming off a streak of body-blows to American self-confidence extending back over a decade — the dot com bubble bursting, 9/11, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the financial crisis, the inability to capture Osama bin Laden, the sense that Afghanistan is Vietnam Redux, the rise and rise of China. When you are president, you are tagged with responsibility for your era whether you have the ability to influence the full range of events impacting you or not.
Second, there are natural political forces in play. Presidents tend to struggle at this point in their presidencies and they tend to suffer losses in the first mid-term election after they assume office. George W. Bush was an exception because of the after-effects of the 9/11 attacks. Call it the fickleness of the American voter or the voters’ inclination to constantly rebalance power to keep one side or another from becoming too dominant. But it’s natural.
Nonetheless, there is something more behind all of this. There seems to be a reluctance of the Democratic Party to actually embrace their record of achievement during the past two years. Either because of successful opposition spin work or because of the consequence of voter unease or, likely, both, Democrats have concluded for some bizarre, misguided reason that they should run away from what is is almost certainly the most productive initial two year period of any presidency in recent memory. Worse, they are compounding it by their unwillingness to attack head on the deficit and the fecklessness of their Republican opponents by calling a vote on extending or ending the Bush Tax Cuts … or on ending them for the rich and extending them for everyone else.
Part of the problem here is that this president and his communications team have failed to assume the role of effective leaders of their own party. They have neither connected well with the Hill leadership nor demanded discipline nor provided support.
A bigger part of the problem is just inexperience. Obama hasn’t suffered blows like this before and it’s hard to be a golden boy all your life and then to face brutal competition. He may have the character to rise to this challenge but thus far he has not demonstrated it. He seems even more withdrawn and aloof than he usually does. What’s more he has relied on a team that is also inexperienced or that has cut out the voices within his administration that could really help him deal with the current situation. He has a fairly dysfunctional administration despite the reports of smooth meetings and "no drama." The Woodward book demonstrates this but so do a hundred other bits of evidence.
One of the reasons Bill Clinton is undergoing such a resurgence of popularity (I gave a speech this week in which I was introduced as a former Clinton administration official and I said "let’s hear it for the Clinton administration" and wild applause followed) is because he seems so much less brittle and defensive than the president. Clinton is doing what Obama must try to
do: he is pointing both to the successes and to the work that remains to be done. He doesn’t sound partisan or defensive. He sounds constructive and like a leader.
But then again, Bill Clinton has been around the block. He has taken a few punches. And he has rebounded. If he has proven one thing, it is that he does not have a glass jaw. Perhaps Obama will pick himself up off the canvas, shake it off and continue, tougher and wiser. It is certainly in everyone’s interest that he does. But we should also remember part of his seeming fragility is that America itself is fragile, part of the reason he is wobbly is the punches we have been sustaining for a decade. The next chapter in this story is not just about his resilience, but ours.