Stephen M. Walt

Credit where it’s due: Is Obama’s record better than it looks?

Back on Sept. 16, I gave a lecture at Cornell University’s Einaudi Center for International Studies. The title was "Doomed to Fail: The Foreign Policy of Barack Obama," and in it I elaborated a number of themes that I’ve also addressed in several blog posts, including this one and this one. The audience was attentive, ...

Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images
Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Back on Sept. 16, I gave a lecture at Cornell University’s Einaudi Center for International Studies. The title was "Doomed to Fail: The Foreign Policy of Barack Obama," and in it I elaborated a number of themes that I’ve also addressed in several blog posts, including this one and this one. The audience was attentive, the questions were excellent, and I especially enjoyed my conversations with Cornell students afterward.

One member of the audience took issue with my central theme during the Q and A, and offered a perceptive alternative analysis. He argued that I hadn’t given Obama sufficient credit for staving off an even deeper collapse of the U.S. and world economy, and he reminded me and the audience that Obama inherited an economy in free-fall. Back then, a lot of people were genuinely worried that we were headed toward a 1930s-style global depression. We seem to have avoided that fate — knock wood-at least so far.

The questioner also pointed out (correctly) that a further melt-down would have caused great human misery and had poisonous effects on politics at home and abroad, fueling even more xenophobia, conspiracy theorizing, and nativism than we have already seen. And if that had happened, then the failures that I had focused on in my talk (Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Iran, China, etc.) would have seemed like minor problems by comparison.

On the whole, I thought he made a very good point. Although I had begun my talk by describing the mess the Obama inherited — including the economic downturn — I hadn’t given him enough credit for the economic measures undertaken at the very outset of the administration. Critics may be right that he should have done more to rein in Wall Street, pushed for a bigger and less pork-driven stimulus, etc., but the fact remains that we didn’t tumble totally into the abyss, and we’ve already forgotten how worried everyone was back then.

The problem Obama faces, alas, is that you don’t get much political credit for preventing non-events. He’d be blamed if the 2008-09 depression had gotten worse, but he gets no applause for preventing any number of Very-Bad-Things-That-Might-Have-Occurred-But-Didn’t. In addition to the Even-Greater Depression of 2009, other non-events include the 2009 Israeli attack on Iran, the Venezuelan-Colombian border war of 2010, and al Qaeda’s successful attack on Yankee Stadium last week. I could go on but presumably you get the point: we’re not very good at giving our leaders credit for the bad things that don’t happen on their watch. And to be fair, that goes for Obama’s predecessor too.

I’ve been perfectly happy to criticize Obama & Co. when I thought they were making mistakes, but my critic’s question reminded me that we ought to give them credit where’s it due. Hence this post.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt
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