Voice

Obama Shows You Can Struggle at Foreign Policy and Still Succeed as President

Perhaps right now, he is the president the United States needs — and with luck, his successor will fix what he could not.

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It is unlikely that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had Barack Obama in mind when they wrote “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in 1968. After all, Obama was only 7 years old at the time. But if there is any song that seems to capture the Obama presidency, both as it must feel to the president and as it does to the fair-eyed world that is observing him, it is this one. Because for this president and of this president, it must be said, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find — you get what you need.”

Obama has been frustrated throughout his presidency by a dysfunctional Congress, by global circumstances that have confounded his own aspirations for his presidency, and by a seemingly endless series of self-inflicted wounds. For one of the luckiest men alive (and one can hardly ascend to the heights he has ascended without some luck), he has had plenty of bad breaks. And for one of the smartest and most talented presidents America has ever had, he has undeniably made his share of mistakes.

Inheriting two wars and a historic economic crisis, an obstructionist Congress, and a uniquely nasty array of bad actors (Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), it is amazing that the president got anything done at all. Further, Obama was not given the political gifts or ease of interaction with his adversaries or allies that many of his less talented predecessors had. Sometimes, it seemed this president wasn’t even trying to address the problems he faced. From Syria to congressional budget battles, he would often retreat into rationalization and analysis paralysis. (That’s the corollary of the perfect being the enemy of the good, in which complexity — real, perceived, or asserted — becomes the enemy of action.)

But when Obama did try — when he really marshaled the full resources of his administration or when those around him helped with the heavy lifting — as it turned out, he got what he needed. He got the stimulus and the economic bailout the United States needed to lead all other developed nations in climbing out of the crisis of 2008-2009. He got Obamacare enacted and validated by the courts. He got a modicum of financial-services reform in place. He made serious moves to address global warming at home and abroad. Belatedly, he even began to take steps to reform America’s broken immigration system. Further, on the international front, where he has struggled in the past week, he crossed a major legislative hurdle that makes successful completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — the biggest the United States has been a part of in a decade — much more likely. And there is an Iran nuclear deal looming. And in December in Paris, it is likely there will be further and meaningful global progress on combating climate change.

Just as importantly, even for those of us who, by virtue of our subject matter pursuits or perhaps as a consequence of our temperaments, have ended up often focused on the president’s shortcoming or missteps, the cumulative consequences of his successes offer more than just an uplifting counterpoint or considerable comfort. They offer an entirely different narrative. They require that we reassess.

Let me strip away the fancy language of commentary here. I am a guy who writes about foreign policy and national security. I write about policy and process. I have written books and literally hundreds of articles about those subjects. I can’t help myself. It is what I do. So if the president is not very good at those things by measure of historical standards or in considering the results he has achieved or even in terms of the goals he has set for himself, I can’t help it. I write about it. I am a critic. I give him and some in his administration a hard time. And I feel justified in doing so. He’s not a very good manager. He is unnecessarily alienated from his own cabinet, his own party in Congress, key allies worldwide. His national security team is adrift, strategy-less and reactive — and often its reactions are little more than half-measures and split differences that are inadequate to the challenges we face. As a consequence, from Iraq to Afghanistan, Syria to Libya, Ukraine to our response to the threat of violent extremism, our big problems have grown bigger and new ones have emerged. Big questions remain about our handling of Iran and our weak response to emerging powers elsewhere, like China.

And you might say, well, then, in terms of advancing America’s role in the world, Obama has not done very well. But over time and especially in weeks like the one just past, that other narrative emerges, and it is also compelling.

Last week Foreign Policy hosted a conference on American competitiveness with some members of the president’s very good international economic team. Entirely by accident our timing was brilliant: The conference was held the day after the trade promotion authority vote cleared the Senate. It was the day the Trade Adjustment Assistance program passed. As it happened, it was also the day the Supreme Court ruled that Obamacare should stand. The successes were resonant. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker were justifiably ebullient. (Export‑Import Bank President Fred Hochberg — his bank on the verge of seeing its authorization lapse — was less so, but the consensus view was Congress would fix that later this summer too.)

But even more than the momentary triumphs of the week, there was an underlying theme of our conference that would be easy to take for granted. Every single participant spoke matter-of-factly about America’s enviable position as one of the most desirable investment locations in the world, as the developed country with the best prospects. Work to be done and deep structural challenges from infrastructure to inequality were cited repeatedly. But what a far cry it was from six years ago, when we spoke of America at the brink, of a country in the midst of its worst economic disaster in three-quarters of a century. It was a heady experience. Yes, China is big and growing and poses a real competitive challenge. Yes, countries like India are growing rapidly too, as FP’s Baseline Profitability Index (produced by our economics editor, Daniel Altman) showed — and as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proudly tweeted. But America’s economy was resilient and robust and is still, in many ways, the envy of the world.

Transitions like the one that has taken place in our own view of ourselves over the past six years sometimes come so slowly that we hardly notice them. And America’s economic vitality and greatness are a symphony of coast-to-coast, public-private accomplishments for which the credit hardly accrues to any one politician. But these changes have happened on Obama’s watch. He did play a vital role in stabilizing a crashing economy (with considerable credit to his predecessor’s team, with which Obama worked in unprecedentedly close coordination during George W. Bush’s last months in office). America is not all the way back. It is not what it can be. But it is a far cry from what it was, and the transformation of the past six years is really rather breathtaking, especially when seen in the light of Europe’s continuing serious problems or the challenges that dog the Chinese, Japanese, Brazilians, and others.

Further, on Friday of last week, two events took place that provided a different kind of lift. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled — with the kind of wisdom, grace, and sensitivity that elevated the country — that no couple should ever again be denied the right to marry simply because the members of that couple are of the same sex. This was a battle for equality and justice that the president and his administration actively supported and that he celebrated unabashedly. It was not lost on Americans with any memory of our not-so-distant past that this was a president who himself was the product of a mixed-race marriage that would have been illegal in many states not too long ago.

That the president is the country’s first African-American chief executive was illustrated with similar power when he flew to Charleston, South Carolina, to offer a eulogy for those slain at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Here was a black president speaking at the scene of America’s latest racial atrocity, a place that happened also to have rich ties to the struggle by black Americans to gain the freedom that they deserved — and the sense of security that, tragically, they have yet to achieve.

Obama was in this moment everything that a president should be and more. He was a leader and our national conscience; he was un-self-conscious and he was inspiring. His eulogy sped like wildfire through the Internet. People were not watching their president because the White House commanded it, because of a national broadcast from the Oval Office. They were watching because their president’s humanity and his eloquence and his passion demanded it.

On a day like Friday, June 26, what is good in America was clear. And it was clear that we as a nation have it within us to grow, that we can identify and acknowledge our flaws and then rise above them, and it was hard not to be moved. Obama was an integral part of that, not simply because he wanted to be but because he was a symbol of that constant process of renewal and reinvention and because he understood it and was still fighting for it with a perspective and a commitment that literally none of his predecessors could possibly understand.

On a day like this, it is also possible for someone like me to look at Obama — even from the limited perspective of a national security or foreign-policy specialist who is all too aware of the president’s flaws and errors, who sees the real potential for greater problems to come — and ask if I have allowed myself to miss an equally important positive story. National security after all begins at home. It begins with economic resilience and opportunity and growth — and the security to know that our system is working better for all citizens, whether by providing them health care or a better environment or a fairer financial system. But it goes further, much further.

America is strong not because our democracy is perfect but because it is perfectible. In a sign of the American people’s recognition of that, a country once nearly destroyed by differing views on race elected a black man president. He in turn, despite the political winds blowing against him and also in spite of his own limitations, continued to struggle for a progressive ideal that he felt had always elevated his country. And he has had great success in that regard. Not in every area. And it hasn’t been pretty. And he has, in my view, missed many opportunities to make America even stronger.

But after this past week — and after the very real and growing list of accomplishments of the past six years — I can’t help but conclude that even if America does not have, in Barack Obama, precisely the president we want, if we are fair-minded about it, we just might find, in some very key respects, we’ve got what we need.

Photo credit: Drew Angerer-Pool/Getty Images

About the Author

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. @djrothkopf

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