The hidden reasons why this was Barack Obama’s best week yet

Of all the triumphs of Barack Obama’s remarkable career, there is no doubt in my mind that the one he would have been happiest to forego is that which took place in Tucson on Wednesday. In fact, it is precisely because you could see how affected he was by the tragedy, by each of the ...

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

Of all the triumphs of Barack Obama's remarkable career, there is no doubt in my mind that the one he would have been happiest to forego is that which took place in Tucson on Wednesday.

In fact, it is precisely because you could see how affected he was by the tragedy, by each of the individual losses, that his speech was so effective. He was human. Broken hearted by Christina Green, elated by the progress of Gaby Giffords, moved by the heroism of so many, he reflected the feelings of a nation. He was immeasurably helped in this by the warm, sensitive, and strong presence of his wife. And he elevated every listener with his admonition to aspire to outcomes from this event that were worthy of its victims.

It was a singular moment and one in which he fully accepted, met, and exceeded the responsibilities of the high office he holds. And if he could wipe it all away by undoing what happened in Tucson on Saturday in front of that Safeway, surely he would have.

Of all the triumphs of Barack Obama’s remarkable career, there is no doubt in my mind that the one he would have been happiest to forego is that which took place in Tucson on Wednesday.

In fact, it is precisely because you could see how affected he was by the tragedy, by each of the individual losses, that his speech was so effective. He was human. Broken hearted by Christina Green, elated by the progress of Gaby Giffords, moved by the heroism of so many, he reflected the feelings of a nation. He was immeasurably helped in this by the warm, sensitive, and strong presence of his wife. And he elevated every listener with his admonition to aspire to outcomes from this event that were worthy of its victims.

It was a singular moment and one in which he fully accepted, met, and exceeded the responsibilities of the high office he holds. And if he could wipe it all away by undoing what happened in Tucson on Saturday in front of that Safeway, surely he would have.

Over the next weeks and days, he will likely see his political stock rise to its highest levels since just after taking office. But it is certain this is not the way he wants to triumph, not as mourner-in-chief or even as MSNBC inelegantly but fairly framed it as "inspirer-in-chief."

Nonetheless there are other reasons quite apart from Tucson that make this the most successful week of his presidency. Reasons that build on the momentum of the past month but that go beyond it, that are attributable to conscious and smart decisions made and actions taken by him and his team. They are:

Rediscovery of the Better Obama
For many who were moved by candidate Obama and by the newly inaugurated President Obama, Tucson was a powerful reminder of what they saw in him. Or rather, it was a reminder of how he made them feel. The arc of his first two years in office follows the gradual deadening of those feelings as aspirations faded and the reality of governing and compromise set in. But my sense is that it was not Tucson that was the turning point in restoring those old feelings but rather it was part of a longer term trend following the midterm election. Obama the underdog and Obama the champion of the underdog or the wounded are very appealing. Obama the cerebral, Obama the arrogant, and Obama the calculatingly pragmatic are not.

When he was at the helm of a big but conflicted — and periodically not terribly competent — Democratic apparatus that dominated Washington, he was diminished by its dysfunction and he seemed to lose his voice. He is a better advocacy lawyer than he is a law professor or deal lawyer. At least, we like that version better. So the Republican’s victory in November may well have been just what the doctor ordered. That on Tuesday he also showed real feeling also helped … but he has been on the rebound for a couple months now. It’s more than just this one event.

Best use yet of Team Obama
This was one of Obama’s most effective weeks as CEO of the United States. By that I mean, this was not the all-Obama-all-the-time one man show of many weak months of the first two years. Rather it was a leader empowering those around him and thus getting his cabinet and White House staff to work as it can…thus multiplying what can be effectively achieved. Joe Biden, who is becoming one of the most effective vice presidents in history, made important trips to Afghanistan and Iraq. Hillary Clinton, who had perhaps the best week of the cabinet, once again scored points by tirelessly working her brief — visiting Yemen, calling out Hezbollah in Lebanon and continuing to manage the considerable progress that’s being made with Iran. Tim Geithner, Gary Locke, Clinton, and Tom Donilon all delivered strong messages about where China needs to clean up its act on currency and trade. Janet Napolitano and Eric Holder were value-added in Tucson … it is clear Napolitano is well loved in the state in which she once served as governor and Holder made it clear that the U.S. government was doing everything it could to respond to the Tucson shooting. Behind the scenes Steven Chu and his team worked to tee up some important deliverables for the Hu visit and teams at State and Commerce were doing the same. What’s more the appointment of Bill Daley as White House chief of staff was met with widespread approval and the message he is ensuring is delivered is that there is a new sheriff in town and that things are going to run differently and more efficiently. Readers of this column know I was concerned real change might not be in the offing. I never expected to see that change so quickly or to be so impressed by what is a real desire by the president to learn from the experiences of the past two years.

Signs of Economic Recovery
It is far too early to open up the champagne … the U.S. economy faces real threats to our recovery … but from Obama’s point of view, the development of the past couple weeks that may be most important to his political future are the signals that U.S. growth may top 3 percent this year and that some economists are predicting it may go to 4. While the state and municipal financial crises, the budget deficit, the Eurozone crisis, the bubbles in the emerging world, spiking commodity prices and the potential for trade conflict or currency wars with China are all real risks, the news is better than it has been in a couple years and the outlook of business leaders with whom I have recently spoken is cautiously optimistic. If Obama uses a changed political mood and his momentum to go bold with his State of the Union and to really make an effort to implement the recommendations of the budget commission and to implement job creation initiatives (that don’t have to bust the budget) like the infrastructure bank, a program to attract foreign investment, reduced corporate taxes, a real effort to cut back regulatory impediments to investment, etc. … well, that could provide just the boost that will get markets believing again.

Bad Week for his Rivals and Adversaries
Not only was the progress for the president significant this week, it was not a good week to be his adversary or rival. Not only do they have to contend with a U.S. president with momentum but they have been creating trouble for themselves. And I don’t just mean Sarah Palin although, as I have already written, I think that particular inexplicable cultural phenomenon is done … at least until we get to "Real Housewives of Wasilla" in a couple of years. And I don’t just mean his other potential opponents or those on the right who were counting on being propelled into office on a tide of uncontrollable national anger and ugly rhetoric. That’s just become a whole lot more difficult. I also mean Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was already losing ground with the world thanks to progress on the Iran sanctions but who will soon be seen as partially responsible for the potential debacle in Lebanon (as a supporter of Hezbollah.) I also mean the Chinese who went too far with their rebuff of Bob Gates and their flaunting their stealth aircraft developments and who helped make the case for those who feel the United States should be tougher on China. And I also mean the Democratic left who are seeing a more centrist president succeed (as more centrist presidents invariably do).

This is no time for complacency. It’s just one week. The next big challenge for the president will be a State of the Union for which expectations, post-Tucson, will be high both in terms of its potential emotional lift and in terms of whether it contains the kind of big ideas that a precariously posed economy desperately needs. But that’s a couple weeks from now. And the good news that most of the above steps … regaining his voice, making his team work to its full potential, riding some economic momentum … are all longer-term developments like to produce even more progress in the future.

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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