- 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.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Obama administration is its inability to own its successes. While this is hardly a weakness that will be cited by the president’s opponents in the upcoming campaign, or even one that they will acknowledge, perhaps, it will impact the outcome next November. Because the Obama track record on many fronts is much better than the administration gives itself credit for.
They could be doing much, much more to tout what is an impressive litany of successes.
While the list of those successes is long and compelling-defeating Bin Laden, getting out of Iraq, helping to oust Qaddafi, restoring our reputation internationally, resetting our international priorities to better coincide with our long term interests (the "pivot" to a focus on Asia), producing meaningful healthcare reform, producing significant financial services reforms, stopping the downward spiral in the economy and laying the foundations of recovery, etc. — let me focus on three areas that deserve much more attention and appreciation.
The first of these is our international economic policy. I worked for President Clinton on these issues and during our tenure there was always a sense they were front and center among the administration’s priorities. But during the first year’s of the Obama administration, the domestic economic crisis dominated and beyond the international repercussions of the market meltdown other econ issues couldn’t seem to wedge their way up to being front of mind for the president or his top advisors.
That has changed. A couple years ago the president made a bold-seemingly out of the blue-call for the U.S. to double it’s exports over the next five years. With growth averaging over 16 percent a year since then, they are on the path to do so. The U.S. Export-Import Bank has broken all records in terms of financing of U.S. exports. Three trade deals got through a divided Congress-against substantial opposition from within the president’s own party. The TPP process is moving forward. Trade laws are being enforced more aggressively. U.S. pressure on China regarding its currency is beginning to have an effect. U.S. active involvement in European debt discussions has been forceful and played a meaningful role in moving them forward (admittedly working against strong internal EU headwinds). The U.S. has actively begun a program to attract foreign investment in the U.S., a long-overlooked area of great importance. Exports are contributing heavily to recent growth. The president’s Export Initiative is working beyond what anyone had any reason to hope was possible.
So where’s the party? Why isn’t the president celebrating each of these landmarks and sending his surrogates across America with this message of success? He can prove he is creating jobs and growth and making material progress at getting globalization to work for the U.S. He should be shouting it from the rooftops. (I know we would have been during the Clinton years. Indeed, we celebrated much smaller accomplishments much more aggressively.)
The next of these is our policy with regard to Iran. In recent days it has become clear that the sanctions against Iran are working vastly better than anyone should have expected. The Europeans are now tightening them further with a planned oil embargo against the Iranians — a display of unity and shared purpose within the Atlantic Alliance that might at one time have seemed as far-fetched as the idea that sanctions could work in the first place. I know I was betting against them having real traction. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Chinese have joined in constructively. Admittedly, they’re doing it to finagle lower oil prices. But whatever their motivation, this is the first major Mideast issue that has required their involvement and they have played a useful role. Further, this is no accident. All of these moves have come thanks to purposeful, tireless behind the scenes diplomacy by the United States.
Further, the pressure brought on the Iranians has not just been economic. From Stuxnet to covert attacks on their nuclear facilities and personnel, the U.S. and our allies have demonstrated that there are useful forms of pressure that fall between toothless soft power and over-the-top applications of "shock and awe" type force.
Will the efforts work? To some degree they already have. The Iranians are feeling serious economic pressure and certainly their nuclear efforts have been setback some. Further, it is now completely accurate for the U.S. and its allies to say that they have tried every avenue other than force to get the Iranians to comply with the demands of the international community. Whether in the future, these efforts are proven not to have stopped the Iranian nuclear program or whether they trigger meaningful political changes, they have been well-conceived, tirelessly pursued, comprehensive and smart. It is really difficult to imagine, in fact, any other president or Secretary of State doing better so far with a harder problem. That’s a big "so far," but it nonetheless is also another area for which the president deserves vastly more credit than he has gotten.
The third of these is the president’s new policy with regard to resetting defense priorities. Admittedly, the Panetta plan for cutting spending was just unveiled today during the president’s trip to the Pentagon. But it has been percolating for weeks. More importantly, it should be seen in the context of the current political environment. Imagine, a president running for re-election is willing to argue for substantial defense spending cuts ($450 billion over a decade) even though he knows it will bring him an onslaught of criticism and constant attacks from his opponents that he is "soft" on defense. There is nothing soft about being willing to take such heat in order to do what is right for the country.
Frankly, I think the cuts are far too small and the U.S. can go much further without materially impacting our status as the world’s sole and uncontested superpower. As the president notes, even with these cuts we will still be spending vastly more than every major military power in the world combined.
But when people suggest the president is weak or not a leader — and there have been episodes during the budget and tax and healthcare battles where he has been fairly open to such criticism — they need also to think of what he is doing in this case. It is very strong and a genuine service to the American people.
Mitt Romney, the almost certain Republican nominee, will run on reputation and track record as a turn-around artist and will be a much more credible and effective candidate than many Democrats currently understand. But the president — if he and his team simply make their case more effectively, systematically and energetically — can offer a story that’s even better. He’s actually doing remarkably well in the world’s toughest job right now, and he is and has been doing so under truly extraordinarily adverse circumstances. This is one of those circumstances in which the substance is better than the PR — and it’s time for the White House’s political and communications brain trust to get out a clean sheet of paper and begin to make new and better plans for claiming the credit the Obama team deserves.