David Rothkopf

Grading Obama: The progress report after two years

We are two years into the Obama administration and judging by the president’s progress to date, assessments being made on this the second anniversary of his time in office are likely to be viewed not as midterm grades but as his first quarter report card. With an increasingly confident, experienced president at the helm of ...


We are two years into the Obama administration and judging by the president’s progress to date, assessments being made on this the second anniversary of his time in office are likely to be viewed not as midterm grades but as his first quarter report card. With an increasingly confident, experienced president at the helm of a country that seems to be gradually creeping toward economic recovery and with a divided opposition in search of a leader, Obama’s re-election prospects are looking better and better.

Still, the reality is that any assessment of the president’s progress to date must be taken with several large pillars of salt. First, as I have noted before, the first two years of any presidency are learning curve years and seldom contain either the highlights of a presidency or even a very clear signal as to its ultimate character. Second, almost inevitably political and policy types overstate the influence of the president on the great issues of the day or even on those factors that weigh in his or her re-election. As is the case with most presidents, Obama’s future will most likely be dictated by exogenous developments over which he has only fairly limited influence — global economic trends, unanticipated actions of third parties at home and abroad, public moods that impact how presidential actions are interpreted and credit and blame allocated, etc.

Nonetheless, given that today is the second anniversary of the president’s inauguration, it is a natural time to take stock and offer some quick evaluations of how he and his team are doing on foreign policy issues.

  • Afghanistan-Pakistan: This is the administration’s signature international issue. Unfortunately, it is also the area in which they have done the worst. Costs and troop commitments have gone way up but likelihood of a lasting, positive outcome — say a stable AfPak region in which the extremist threat is materially diminished — has not improved at all. It increasingly looks like pressure to get out will force the United States to accept a bad outcome in Afghanistan and the future for Pakistan is murky at best. Our lead ally, Hamid Karzai, is an unrepentant crook and our strongest supporters in Pakistan face strong opposition and are on shaky ground politically. The likely best outcome is strong man regimes in both places, no democracy, and festering threats. Further, despite the White House’s lack of appreciation for Richard Holbrooke (and the hypocrisy of some them in terms of their comments in the wake of his untimely death was breathtaking), he will be missed and is already proving to be very hard to replace. Bob Gates will be even harder to replace. Grade: D
  • Iran: The administration got off to a slow start in Iran, didn’t express support for protesters when it should have, and has not done anything to really counteract the threat Iran poses to the region via its support for Hezbollah and Hamas and its infiltration of the politics of its neighbors. However, the carefully coordinated, tireless efforts to find an effective diplomatic-cover action response to the Iranian nuclear program has shown some promising progress of late. (And WikiLeaks helped illustrate some of those efforts for the world.) The nuclear threat remains but the way it has been handled by the Obama administration has been about as well as anyone could have done. Grade: B
  • Israel-Palestine: The administration deserves credit for getting involved in this issue and not pulling back even as both of sides have done almost everything in their power to impede, delay, and complicate the process. For a change. The relationship with the Israelis has been, to be polite, fitful. And part of it is clearly due to divisions and missteps within the administration. Although blaming them is roughly akin to blaming Elin for Tiger’s sins. (Sandra Bullock for Jesse James’s? Charlie Sheen’s ex-wife for his? Women for what men do wrong? You get the idea.) This is one case where I believe getting nowhere is about as well as could be hoped for and remaining engaged is a sign of strength. The key to a better grade going forward is whether they will break out of the box of old-think on this. My sense is that the ticking of Israel’s demographic clock, the shift in global opinion, and the changing mood in the United States could actually lead to a breakthrough on this issue during the remaining (six) Obama years. Although that breakthrough could well begin with the Palestinians taking their recent Washington flag-raising to its natural next step and simply unilaterally creating a two-state reality. Grade: B
  • The Fragile States: The Greater Middle East is made more dangerous because everywhere you look there are fragile states that could remake the strategic situation at any time. Topping this list are Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. But the next tier of problem states from Yemen to Lebanon…but also including those in the near neighborhood where developments impact the overall regional dynamic like Tunisia, Egypt, the Horn of Africa and Central Asia…are an area taking up increasing time from the administration. Expect this to be an area where a disproportionate amount of attention is devoted going forward…and one where big, hard decisions will have to be made that could be among those x-factors impacting the administration’s final grades. Grade: INC.
  • Iraq: This was George Bush’s big issue. It has not been Obama’s. That is to his everlasting credit. He has stuck with his promises and thus far managed a smooth draw down. Instability lurks in every alleyway of the country and it could all come undone — especially thanks to the obstructive, self-interested, fecklessness of the country’s political "leadership" (and I use the term loosely.) But so far so good. Grade: B
  • China: While Afghanistan-Pakistan is the administration’s signature issue, China is the most important foreign policy issue the president will have to deal with. He got off to a weak start with a visit to Beijing that was marked by a faltering, seemingly too deferential performance by the president. It wasn’t helped as the Chinese outmaneuvered the United States at recent U.N. General Assembly, climate and G-20 meetings. But in the run up to the current visit of President Hu to the United States, the Obama team has done a much better job of presenting a coordinated, tougher front. Any results from this trip? Not much more than is regularly provided thanks to the usual checkbook diplomacy by the Chinese. In fact, so far, the story of this trip is once again not how the U.S. president is doing but how easily the Chinese president has slipped into the role of being his peer among world leaders. Big challenges lurking here on economics (where we have made limited progress on currency to date), trade (where storms are looming…particularly around intellectual property), military affairs (where the Chinese are unabashedly positioning themselves as challengers), resource competition (a new global great game is going on with major implications for future strategic balance), proliferation (where China is not being constructive), climate (where China is now calling the tune), and China’s muscle-flexing in Asia. Grade: B
  • The Other BRICs: On Russia, once again a shaky beginning has been transcended by a New START deal and better cooperation on issues from missile defense to Iran. That said, when you have Putin’s Russia on the same page with you, you have to wonder if you are on the right page given the country’s disturbing recent record on issues from democracy to bullying in its near abroad. On Brazil, there’s been very little going on…some progress on a couple of trade related issues…but that was overshadowed by differences that emerged when Brazil sought to interject itself in the Iran nuclear issue. That said the overall relationship between the two countries has probably never been better in terms of private sector interaction. The big success among the BRICs is India — where the president’s November trip was a big hit and his call for Indian permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council was extremely well-received. (In fact, one senior Brazilian diplomat told me that if the president now goes to Brazil and doesn’t offer them the same thing, "he might as well not come.") Grade: B
  • North Korea: The administration was seriously blind-sided by the recent flare ups with the North Koreans and in particular by the revelation that they had constructed an advanced nuclear enrichment facility. The diplomacy with the other six party members has also not been terribly productive. This remains a dangerous area, as likely to produce an unintentional conflict as it is to produce an unexpected reconciliation between the two halves of the divided country. Grade: C
  • Mexico — The administration has tried to remain actively engaged and to assist the Mexican government in avoiding further deterioration due to the on-going war with the drug cartels. With over 12,000 murders in the past year and huge repercussions on the border with the United States, it cannot be said this is going well despite the best efforts of both governments. This is an issue that is going to cause more tough problems for Obama than many anticipate. Grade: B-
  • Europe: Obama gets high marks for restoring good feeling to trans-Atlantic relations that had been thoroughly unsettled by Bush’s cowboy antics. While the current administration’s relations with virtually all of Europe’s leaders are formal and often, slightly frosty, communications are good, cooperation on difficult issues like managing successive economic crises has been admirable if not always optimal from the U.S. perspective, and a real healing has taken place. Grade: A-
  • Japan: Twenty years ago, Japan was China. It was the country everyone thought was going to supplant the United States in the world’s economic pecking order. Today, after a prolonged downturn and continuing political volatility, Japan is scarcely ever brought up when top foreign policy concerns are listed. Still, were the Japanese markets to sustain another shock or were Japanese relations with the Chinese to grow more strained or were Japan drawn into a conflict involving the North Koreans, the country would instantly be front of mind. Further, in the new great power equation of the world, the Japanese represent a vitally important partner and counter-balance. The administration has recognized this, doing the best they could to maintain strong dialogue despite Japanese political churning. Grade: A-
  • Domestic Issues with International Impact: U.S. national security flows from our domestic economic security. And the world’s economy depends on U.S. economic performance. The United States still has a giant deficit, a devastated housing market and anemic job creation…but it is also clear that great strides have been made in the past two years. A depression was averted. Jobs are (far too slowly) being created. And we seem to be on the verge of some kind of healthy national conversation on reducing the deficit. (If Obama makes a bold move to embrace the recommendations of the Deficit Commission he will essentially pull the rug out from under his potential Republican political rivals.) That’s all health and to some degree, it’s remarkable. For all that on this key issue, Obama and his team get a grade of: A
  • Management: In the past several months the Obama administration has turned a corner in terms of its own operations. It has upgraded its leadership in key areas beginning with the second most important job in the White House, that of the chief of staff. Replacements on the economic and national security teams show a renewed focus on more effective processes and making the most of the whole cabinet. Outreach to private groups is improving as it must. And on the issue of managing the key national security agency of State and Defense, important moves toward reforms have been made by two of Obama’s most dependable, highest quality team members: Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates. This is one area where improvement has been great. Grade: B+

Naturally, it’s impossible to have covered every issue. One could easily have also taken a look at cross cutting issues like climate (Grade: B-. .. not much progress despite much improved rhetoric), trade (Grade: B- … a little move on the Korea deal, nothing much before or after), currency policy (slight improvements with the Chinese, eurozone on the critical list, dollar weakening a potential problem as inflationary concerns rise … Grade: B-), development (QDDR a step forward, work in places like Haiti and Pakistan post-disaster admirable but hampered by serious problems… Grade: B-), arms control (the Russian deal, the Iranian effort, progress on missile defense all offset by continuing worries about loose nukes in Pakistan, uncertainty about Iran, the North Korean program … Grade: B), and military affairs (you can’t give credit to the military for doing a great job on the ground in Iraq and AfPak without also making them shoulder the blame for advocating policies that don’t or won’t work … Grade: B-/C+).

But across the board the conclusions are similar: This is a hard-working, earnest, talented administration doing a pretty solid job in very challenging times. Overall Grade: B

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