Decision Time for Barack Obama

After his mid-term ‘shellacking’, the President has a choice: Clintonian pragmatism or the ideological purity of the Left

America’s system of separated powers is wondrous to behold. Even considering just the two elected branches, Congress and the Presidency, its complications and intricacies baffle foreigners and Americans alike. Moreover, the 50 states remain politically pivotal, especially immediately after the decennial census. Population changes among states shift their relative weights in the Electoral College, and control of state governments post-census can shape congressional districts and therefore election outcomes. Not surprisingly, interpreting the biennial elections between presidential years is both critical and highly uncertain. In 1994, an unexpected tsunami gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954, and was widely interpreted as signalling Bill Clinton’s impending defeat in 1996. Nonetheless, Clinton won re-election easily. By contrast, the 2006 Republican “thumpin'”, as George W. Bush described it, did indeed foreshadow Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. 

This November 2, Obama was not on anyone’s ballot. During his first two years, he seemed indifferent to, or in denial about, the political firestorm growing around him. In January 2010, for example, Arkansas Congressman Marion Berry described Obama’s candid remarks to the House Democratic caucus. Fearing the rising backlash against his programmes, especially health care, Democrats asked how they could avoid a 1994-type cataclysm. Obama answered: “Well, the big difference [between] here and 1994 is you’ve got me.” Apart from unrestrained egotism, Obama’s answer reflected awesome political misjudgment. Bill Clinton, who defeated a Republican incumbent with a 91 per cent approval rating following the first Gulf War, could easily have said exactly the same thing in 1994. Had Obama learned nothing? 

Equally telling was Obama’s blithe observation, also in January 2010, that he would rather be a “really good one-term President than a mediocre two-term President”. Obama’s seemingly casual response showed his confidence that his mere election was so historic that he had no need for an actual record of accomplishment. Moreover, his disdain never diminished for his fellow citizens, whom he once described as “clinging to their guns and religion” against the unknown. Other Democrats exhibited similar contempt for mere voters. In October, for example, Senator John Kerry deigned to observe about the common folks: “It’s absurd. We’ve lost our minds. We’re in a period of know-nothingism in the country, where truth and science and facts don’t weigh in. It’s all short-order, lowest-common-denominator, cheap-seat politics.”

By November 2, however, Democratic candidates at every level were fleeing Obama’s embrace. They deeply feared precisely what Republicans sought: a national referendum on his policies and performance. Obama played directly into their hands via a question from the Reverend Al Sharpton: “So even though your name isn’t on the ballot, this is about your agenda and about the progress we’ve seen you begin to make over the past 20-odd months?” Obama responded unhesitatingly: “Absolutely.” And how did he greet the prospect of massive Republican victories? On October 30, he mused: “We can spend the next two years arguing with one another, trapped in stale debates, mired in gridlock, unable to make progress in solving the serious problems facing our country…or we can do what the American people are demanding that we do. We can move forward.” So much for a free market in ideas in the Obama era.

The most revealing crossfire came late in the campaign when the President pleaded, “If Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, ‘We’re gonna punish our enemies, and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us’ — if they don’t see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election — then I think it’s going to be harder.” On election eve, Republican House leader, now Speaker-elect, John Boehner fired back: “Mr President, there’s a word for people who have the audacity to speak up in defence of freedom, the Constitution and the values of limited government that made our country great. We don’t call them ‘enemies’. We call them ‘patriots’.” Hours before Boehner spoke, but after his prepared remarks were released to the media, Obama agreed he “probably” should not have used the word “enemies”, hardly an upbeat campaign closing for a President. Despite Obama’s last-minute retreat, this exchange of rhetorical salvoes may well foreshadow two difficult years ahead.

The other big 2010 political story was the Tea Party phenomenon and its long-range implications. The Tea Party’s central focus, as its name implies, is reducing government taxation, spending and Federal control over the economy. It is truly a grassroots outpouring, not a structured, hierarchical monolith, calling to mind Will Rogers’s famous quip: “I am not a member of any organised party — I am a Democrat.” Many observers still do not comprehend what moves ordinary, middle-class Americans to become so vociferous. On November 1, for example, a Financial Times reporter referred in the first sentence of a “news” story to “the ultraconservative Tea Party movement”. But, in fact, its growth is best understood simply as a precisely inverse reaction to Obama. In implementing the famous insight “Never let a serious crisis go to waste”, he tried to jam 50-plus years of left-wing frustration through Congress under cover of responding to the 2008 economic crash. He succeeded in part and failed in part, so Tea Partiers will now focus on blocking further government expansion, while simultaneously seeking to roll back changes, such as in healthcare, Obama was able to make. 

What happens for Tea Party backers in foreign and national security policy is less clear. Too many observers simply assume that self-styled Tea Party adherents will advocate massive cuts in defence spending and reducing the American presence overseas. If accurate, this would make the Tea Party little different from the Democrats’ left wing, which refused to acknowledge even Afghanistan as a “good war”, let alone support Bush’s decision to overthrow Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. But it is entirely consistent with conservative libertarianism to believe in both smaller government and strong national defence. The slogan “peace through strength” sustained the Right throughout the Cold War and Barry Goldwater’s foreign policy manifesto was entitled “Why Not Victory?” rather than “Why Not Isolationism?” Tea Party followers are unambiguous about the UN and the secular religion of multilateralism. Across the movement, there is nary a glimmer of support for entrusting more clout to multilateral bodies, let alone anything even vaguely resembling a reduction of US sovereignty. There is, therefore, scant reason to see the Tea Party joining the Left to support a smaller US global role. 

Now that 2010’s voters have spoken, what will Obama, the first post-American President, do in the next two years? Are they his final two, as he heads towards a Jimmy Carter-like place in history? Or, in 2012, can he “do a Clinton” and win another term? Obama’s choice between alternative paradigms is entirely in his hands. In one, he tracks Clinton’s post-1994 approach, and moves to the centre. Clinton invented “triangulation”, positioning himself between Republican congressional majorities on one hand and congressional Democrats on the other. By being (or at least appearing to be) both centrist and somewhat above the battle, Clinton successfully won re-election in 1996. Call this the pragmatic approach. By contrast, the ideological approach would see Obama continuing to pursue his initial leftist agenda: Europeanising the US health-care system, dramatically increasing Federal taxing and spending, expanding government regulation and control and pursuing priorities not yet enacted, such as further economic restructuring under the guise of protecting against “climate change”. One certainty is that Obama will defend his early victories. Having spilled so much Democratic blood, it is inconceivable he will agree to dismantle, say, his own healthcare reform.

Obama will face stiff Republican opposition in 2012, and perhaps revolt from within his own party. Polling in October showed that, among Democrats, 47 per cent believed he should be challenged for renomination, while 51 per cent did not. Among all voters, 47 per cent favoured his re-election (down from 53 per cent in 2008), with 51 per cent opposed. These levels are stunning, especially since Obama was not matched against specific opponents (although for Democrats, Hillary Clinton may be the ghost of both Christmas Past and Christmas Future). Head-to-head, post-election polls show Obama losing to Republicans Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, but winning against Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. No wonder Obama seems to be in denial.

Today, only Obama himself really knows which alternative he will choose. In a surreal November 3 press conference, Obama admitted he had taken a “shellacking”, but that was little more than a statement of the obvious. He also said: “Over the last two years, we’ve made progress, but clearly too many people haven’t felt that progress yet and they told us that clearly yesterday,” and “I think we’d be misreading the election if we thought that the American people want to see us for the next two years relitigate arguments that we had over the last two years.” Although he made the requisite post-election noises about co-operating with congressional Republicans, the underlying substance of his remarks pointed toward continuing ideological purity. And unmistakably, it showed Obama in continuing stark denial about American political reality.

The Republican and Tea Party election analysis is exactly the opposite: Obama badly misread his 2008 mandate, and his domestic policies ran contrary to the citizenry’s real desires. America was and remains a centre-right nation that was simply fed up with Bush and Republican departures from their basic principles. Accordingly, now is the time to retrench, with government spending and Obama’s healthcare reform first on the chopping block. Under this conservative view, shared by many Democrats, Obama’s only hope is Bill Clinton-style pragmatism.

Critical, however, in Obama’s choice of future direction, is the realm of foreign and national security policy. Obama’s initial preoccupation has been relentlessly, unambiguously domestic, but this need not be the case from now on. Obama has made significant national-security decisions, but only when he had no alternative, when events forced his hand, as in Afghanistan. He has not acted with relish or conviction, other than his all-too-visible unease with exercising American power, even in support of palpable US interests.

It is a commonplace that national leaders, including presidents, frustrated on domestic issues turn their attention and energy to international relations. Thus, the prospect of domestic legislative gridlock for the next two years may cause even Obama to lift up his eyes from his community organiser past. And indeed, just three days after the election, he left Washington for an extended trip to Asia, as though symbolically fleeing a battlefield defeat. But shifting focus will not come easily for Obama and he will not necessarily see a potential political advantage. In the 2010 election, there was hardly a whisper of debate over foreign and national security policy. Even terrorist package bombs en route from Yemen the weekend before the election barely caused a ripple in the political maelstrom enveloping Obama and his party. If Republicans did not win a foreign-policy mandate, and with minimal electoral attention even to life-and-death questions like terrorism, why would Obama look outward?

Perhaps the shortest answer is that he may have no choice. Challenges to America have been rising despite, in fact because of, Obama’s inattention. Terrorism manifestly continues to be a threat, the US is still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan’s stability remains uncertain, rogue states like Iran and North Korea relentlessly seek nuclear weapons, the Arab-Israeli dispute is no closer to resolution, China and Russia are pursuing increasingly aggressive policies, and drug cartels in Mexico are spreading violence across the southern US border, just to name a few issues Obama has essentially tried to ignore. Here is where the constitutional separation of powers predominates, prevailing over November’s Democratic electoral defeats, bad as they were for Obama. The Constitution confers on the president the initiative and principal responsibility for directing foreign policy and even Obama can avoid it for only so long. Two years may be the limit. However, his underlying strategic policy choice arises in foreign affairs as well as domestic: will we see a pragmatic Obama, or a full-ahead ideologue?

First up for the White House is deciding whether it can jam the “New START” arms-control treaty with Russia through Congress’s November lame-duck session. Given the makeup of the incoming Senate in January, Obama either gets this treaty ratified beforehand, or he almost certainly never gets it at all. Prospects for the vote, which requires a Constitutional two-thirds of the Senate to approve the treaty, are dicey. Does Obama really want to invest an enormous amount of scarce political capital on an issue with no domestic constituency? And risk looking even weaker if he loses, as Clinton did when the Senate defeated the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999 (or Woodrow Wilson did when he lost the Treaty of Versailles in 1919)? Will traumatised Democratic Senators facing re-election in 2012 or 2014 really want to jump off this cliff? If Obama cannot get even this bilateral treaty ratified, his vision of “nuclear zero” will be essentially finished and one of his greatest “legacy” projects will lie in ashes. When this article appears in print, we will know how Obama proceeded, thus providing at least one piece of evidence whether he will act pragmatically or full-steam-ahead ideologically. 

Looming next chronologically are decisions on Afghanistan and Iraq, starting with the long-scheduled December review of administration policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Reports from the region are confused, with encouraging signs mixed with more discouraging ones, not least of which was America’s ally, President Hamid Karzai, freely admitting he was in regular, personal receipt of “bags of money” from Iran. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are watching carefully. As their saying goes, “You have the watches, we have the time.” Whether Obama decides to stand by his pledge to begin troop withdrawals from Afghanistan starting in summer 2011 will also foreshadow decisions on troop withdrawals from Iraq, and the larger question of America’s overall role in the Middle East. If the U.S. presence is to decline dramatically, Arab states will reach conclusions about accommodating Iran that can only be negative for the West. Moreover, in terms of presidential election cycles, campaigning for the 2012 party nominations, and the risk of an internal Democratic challenge from Obama’s Left, coincides precisely with the projected drawdown of substantial US forces from Afghanistan.

Significantly, decisions about Afghanistan strategy and troop levels will inevitably have a major impact on Pakistani political stability. Sixty-three years since partition and independence, Pakistani democracy remains fragile and the internal threat from radical Islam is growing, both in civil society and the military. Obama deserves credit for highlighting the continuing risks to Pakistan, which is certainly not an easy place to make progress against the jihadists. But the summer 2011 prospect of cutting and running from Afghanistan only underlines the risks of dangerous repercussion across the Durand Line. This is not the time to go wobbly. Should Pakistan, with its substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons, fall into the hands of radical Islamists, the proliferation implications would be profound, both on the subcontinent and worldwide.

And while Obama may not want to fight a “global war on terrorism”, the terrorists are still waging it against us, as the sophisticated package bombs from Yemen proved. The number of “near misses” by the terrorists against America seems to be rising and accelerating. Already, the strains of the terrorism issue are affecting US politics, demonstrated most notably by the roaring controversy over the proposed Ground Zero mosque. With polling showing overwhelming opposition to the mosque, Obama made himself a political mess, irritating nearly everyone by his ambiguity and flip-flopping, and signalling that 2008’s great campaigner has lost his sure touch. Just a single successful terrorist attack in the US would dominate the political scene indefinitely and, unlike Bush after 9/11, not necessarily to Obama’s advantage.

The President’s nearly two years of effort to restart direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians was never realistic and was not declared formally dead before November 3 only to avoid political embarrassment. Obama shares the basic European analysis that progress on Israel-Palestinian issues will assuage the Muslim world and reduce terrorism. This view has always been erroneous and in any case Obama has failed. There is no sign he has a Plan B, or that the chasm of disagreement between Israel and what passes for non-terrorist Palestinian leadership has any near-term prospect for resolution. 

Persistent nuclear proliferation activities by Iran and North Korea should also be at the top of Obama’s priorities. He has spent two years extending his hand to the rogue states, hoping for negotiations, to date without success. But even if Tehran and Pyongyang return to the bargaining table, they are no more likely today to give up their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes than they have been during the previous ten years of failed negotiations. If North Korea keeps its nuclear arsenal, and Iran acquires one, their success will signal to every other would-be proliferator that it is open season for anyone with the money and the willpower to outlast the US. Both rogue states are global threats, co-operating extensively with each other on nuclear and ballistic missile matters and prepared, as in the case of Syria, to co-operate with others as well. North Korea has long shown its willingness to sell anything to anybody for hard currency, and Iran’s (and Russia’s) involvement with a nascent Venezuelan nuclear programme can only spell trouble ahead.

Speaking of the Western hemisphere, successive US Presidents have not paid adequate attention to Washington’s nearest neighbours. The situation is darkening and not just because of Hugo Chávez. On the southern border, America’s most pronounced problem may no longer be illegal immigration but the growing strength of Mexico’s drug cartels. When Secretary of State Clinton said in September that Mexico reminded her of Colombia 20 years ago, she was, incredibly, explicitly contradicted by Obama within days. Not only is Mexico’s drug violence (29,000 killed in the last four years in drug-related incidents) spilling into Arizona and Texas, but the very fabric of Mexican civil society is being torn apart. Already widespread police and judicial corruption is now exacerbated by increasing physical attacks on local officials and police forces. Even journalists are murdered or intimidated. Just as in Colombia two decades ago, the Mexican government may soon be unable to control large portions of its territory. If Colombia’s drug cartels were threats to hemispheric stability and America, requiring major military operations to control, just think about such a cauldron directly abutting the southern border. 

And then there are the personnel questions. The White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has already left to run for mayor of Chicago, replaced temporarily by a former Senate staffer. The Secretary of Defence Robert Gates has announced his early 2011 departure. General James Jones (former Marine Corps Commandant and Nato Supreme Commander) resigned as National Security Adviser, after an isolated and failed tenure. Say what you will about Jones’s performance, but he was a man of accomplishment. His replacement is another career Democratic staffer. With heavyweight economics advisers such as Christina Romer and former Harvard president Larry Summers already history, can the Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner be far behind? Do other high-profile officials such as special envoys George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke really plan to carry on? 

Depending on events in Afghanistan, what of General David Petraeus, the successful leader of Bush’s Iraq surge, and Obama’s third ground commander in Afghanistan in under two years? Will Petraeus leave the army and stand for President or will Obama name him the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thus sidetracking a potential political threat? Obama’s first team is disappearing, replaced by pale imitations of real players. His lower staffing levels in the White House and State Department are more ideologically hard-core, thus perhaps presaging the more reflexive multilateralism favoured by Obama’s enduring European supporters. But for a President in potentially desperate domestic political trouble, kudos from Europeans will mean little. 

The big Washington guessing game is whether Hillary Clinton will leave State, perhaps to challenge Obama for the 2012 Democratic nomination, despite her recent disavowals. Whether she exits or not, Mrs Clinton has not been significant in major Administration decisions and often seems uncomfortable with her portfolio, except for economic and social development issues. Nonetheless, she and her husband remain one of the Democrats’ most astute political teams, and their political careers are far from over. 

Amid so much uncertainty, what emerges starkly is the singular importance of Obama the individual. As Harry Truman observed perceptively, the buck always stops with the President. But this presidency rests so much on the uniqueness of Obama — or at least it always has in his mind and that of his most devoted acolytes — that he alone knows the way ahead. And we can therefore be certain that, much as 2010 was a referendum on Obama’s policies, 2012 will be a referendum on Obama himself.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"