Stephen M. Walt

When it comes to real reform, Obama’s bark is bigger than his bite

I’m off to Europe this evening, and blogging will be light-to-non-existent for the rest of the week, depending a bit on internet access. First stop is Dublin, where I’ll be giving a lecture on Obama’s foreign policy at the Institute for International and European Affairs. It’s not a particularly upbeat assessment-though I will give Obama ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

I’m off to Europe this evening, and blogging will be light-to-non-existent for the rest of the week, depending a bit on internet access. First stop is Dublin, where I’ll be giving a lecture on Obama’s foreign policy at the Institute for International and European Affairs. It’s not a particularly upbeat assessment-though I will give Obama credit for some positive steps — and more and more I think he’s in for a real dog-fight in the 2012 election. 

We all know that he inherited a bleak economic picture, two losing wars, and an American whose global image was in free-fall. He’s done a lot to repair America’s overall image, and the administration’s initial response to the financial crisis clearly averted a more serious and lasting meltdown. But with the passage of time, it’s become clearer that Obama is more comfortable with bold rhetoric than bold action. With some rare exceptions — the raid that took out Osama bin Laden being an obvious example — it’s been a pretty tepid and unimaginative presidency and at a moment in history where bigger and harder decisions were needed. He put together a financial rescue package, but it was smaller than necessary and it didn’t do much to reform the overall financial system. He got a health care bill passed, but in a watered-down form that won’t make that much difference to health care costs. And apart from the initial stimulus package, there wasn’t a sustained focus on job creation, which is coming back to haunt him now.

On foreign policy, he’s getting out of Iraq, but very slowly. Instead of cutting our losses in Afghanistan and focusing on more serious problems, he chose a half-hearted "surge" instead and will have trouble selling Afghanistan as a success story when he campaigns next year. He gives great speeches on the Middle East but doesn’t follow through with policy change, so he can’t claim any progress there either. He’s done better in strengthening ties in Asia and I get the impression that he’d like to get us out of our current quagmires and focus even more attention there  (which would be smart), but then he sends us into a strategically pointless intervention in Libya.  

In short, it’s not clear exactly what big achievements Obama is going to tout when he heads out on the hustings next year. You don’t get much credit for helping avert disasters that didn’t actually happen (like a spiral into another Great Depression), and it’s already clear that the GOP field is going to beat him up repeatedly over the sluggish economy and the high unemployment numbers. And don’t expect the Republican House to lift a finger to help on that front, no matter how many Americans suffer as a result. Foreign policy issues won’t play much role in the campaign, but it’s hard for me to think of any big wins that will sway many voters, and most people will have forgotten about our getting bin Laden by the time they enter the voting both. So if I were one of the people who write for FP‘s"Shadow Government," I’d be keeping my CV up-to-date.

After spending Bloomsday sightseeing in Dublin (a city I’ve never visited), I’m off to a conference in France on Friday. The topic is "The Middle East and World Order: A Continued Focus of Transatlantic Concern," and there will be an interesting collection of people from Europe, the Middle East and the United States in attendance. I’m especially interested to hear how these problems look from outside the United States, and although the proceedings are "off-the-record", I’ll try to pass along any pearls of wisdom (suitably anonymized) that I glean from the exchanges.   

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

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