Obama, we hardly know you

I was having dinner with friends the other night and the subject turned to a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Fouad Ajami called “The Obsolescence of Barack Obama.” The subject of the piece — which I had not seen, but now have read — was essentially the decline and fall of the Obama presidency. ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

I was having dinner with friends the other night and the subject turned to a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Fouad Ajami called "The Obsolescence of Barack Obama." The subject of the piece -- which I had not seen, but now have read -- was essentially the decline and fall of the Obama presidency. Ajami wrote that "the Obama strategy has lost the consent of the governed." 

Ajami's central assertion was that as far as this presidency is concerned, it is all over but the entropy. Due to mistakes already made, he suggested that the president had sealed his own fate, couldn't recover and that he (and we) are doomed to a Carter-like descent into presidential impotence and irrelevance. "There is little evidence," the professor writes, "that the Obama presidency could yet find new vindication, another lease on life. Mr. Obama will mark time, but henceforth he will not define the national agenda."

I was having dinner with friends the other night and the subject turned to a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Fouad Ajami called “The Obsolescence of Barack Obama.” The subject of the piece — which I had not seen, but now have read — was essentially the decline and fall of the Obama presidency. Ajami wrote that “the Obama strategy has lost the consent of the governed.” 

Ajami’s central assertion was that as far as this presidency is concerned, it is all over but the entropy. Due to mistakes already made, he suggested that the president had sealed his own fate, couldn’t recover and that he (and we) are doomed to a Carter-like descent into presidential impotence and irrelevance. “There is little evidence,” the professor writes, “that the Obama presidency could yet find new vindication, another lease on life. Mr. Obama will mark time, but henceforth he will not define the national agenda.”

It was a well-argued, quite passionate piece. The problem with it was that it was arrant nonsense. (I recognize that the term “arrant nonsense” should usually be reserved for gaunt English character actors playing the Sherriff of Nottingham but in this instance it fits, and if you heard me say it with my not-so-plummy Central New Jersey accent, you wouldn’t think it sounded half as pompous as it might appear in print.)

The fatal flaw in the piece was that its central thesis is dependent on the notion that all the events that will define the Obama presidency have already happened. Ajami pays lip service to the notion that “there remains the fact of his biography, a man’s journey.” But he is dismissive that the future can further define or revitalize this presidency. Obama, lacks “the suppleness” of Clinton, a term cleverly selected to imply both flexibility and sleaziness all at once — a nice nuance from the point of view of partisan political writing, showing this was the work of a pro.

While Ajami writes with the serious language of a scholar, it is clear that history is of little interest to him. The die has been cast: Obama’s character as president, his political viability and his future options will all be defined by how he has thus far handled the events of the first year-and-a-half of his presidency.

This is just silliness, of course. First of all, at this point in the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush they had not defined themselves and indeed, each appeared very different from how we view them today.

Kennedy was still pretty much a work in progress and the Cuban Missile Crisis was still two months away. Johnson accomplished a great deal including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act and, if defined by his first 18 months, would have been regarded as a great success. It wasn’t until after 1966 that his political fortunes began to turn with the deepening involvement in Vietnam and spreading unrest in American cities. Nixon was years away from Watergate at this point. It was in August of his second year that the Camp David process began in the Carter presidency and a deal would not be struck until March of the following year. The “malaise” speech and the Iran hostage crisis were well over a year away.

Reagan, whom Ajami deeply admires and distinguishes from Obama because he allegedly believed in America more than the current president (setting aside Obama’s life story as testimony that argues to the contrary), was during the first two years of his presidency still trying to find his sea-legs. Yes, he had handled the air traffic controllers but the “evil empire” speech and the “Star Wars” proposal were still, at this point in his presidency, more than half a year away. And the Iran-Contra affair (which may have slipped Ajami’s mind) and the “tear down that wall” speech and the four Reagan-Gorbachev summits were all years away.

For George H.W. Bush, August of his second year in office saw Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. U.S. planning for the invasion began in the ensuing weeks. But arguably, for all his successes, Bush’s enduring image was shaped most by his missteps during the 1992 campaign. The supple presidency of Bill Clinton that began next really didn’t reach its full suppliciousness until the second term, both in terms of economic successes, foreign policy triumphs or the scandal that redefined it. Finally, similarly, while 9/11 offered George W. Bush his finest hour in the first year of his term, the invasion of Iraq that defined him did not take place until 2003 and the mismanagement of the war that defined it almost as much as its misconception took several years after that.

In other words, no recent president (I left out Gerald Ford due to the unique circumstances and tenure of his presidency) has been defined at this point in his presidency and most saw major swings in popularity and objective successes and failures throughout their terms. In short, recent history suggests that it is almost impossible to know a president or characterize a presidency at this point in a term of office.

Further, as we know, much of how these presidents are currently viewed was shaped in the years after they left office. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton have all seen their reputations rebound considerably or at least be burnished by either post-presidential activities or the work of partisan or family-owned image-burnishing machinery.

Finally, the reality is that much of what defines a president is not within the control of even the most powerful individual on earth to conceive, design or implement. Much of it has to do with externalities. Tell me what the unemployment rate will be next year and the year after, and I’ll tell you whether Obama wins re-election. Unless there is a terror attack or natural disaster that intervenes, and then tell me how he responds to that — and we can formulate an idea as to how he will be viewed. (And don’t tell me he is responsible for the unemployment number and can fix it. He can influence it but most of the best economists in America haven’t a clue as to how to address our current labor crisis or whether or not anything we might do would be able to impact it in a lasting and positive way.)

In short, we have learned much about Obama and certainly, Ajami is right that the mystique of the campaign and early days in office has worn off and, as he writes, “good riddance.” But, the Obama presidency, if it is like any of those before, has yet to be defined. Indeed, it is how he deals with unexpected and unanticipated events that are yet to come — or to the unintended consequences of his initial policy moves — that is more likely to define his presidency than anything that has happened thus far.

David 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. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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