Summer 2010

Will He Overcome? Obama’s Struggle to Convince

Jim Hoagland

Both on paper and on the campaign trail, Barack Obama seemed well suited to lead the world’s most powerful nation out of a time of economic woe and political disillusionment – in short, to pick up the pieces of a confidence-shattering decade. But a majority of Americans have concluded otherwise after Obama’s first 18 months in power. Obama’s most urgent tasks this autumn and winter will be to understand this reversal of political fortune and to find the secret of overcoming it.

This is far from being Mission Impossible for this talented politician. Talk at length to Obama’s senior aides, or to occasional visitors to the White House who engage this young president in a conceptual discussion, and a surprisingly consistent word portrait of Obama-in-power emerges: He has overwhelming confidence in his abilities as a problem solver and as a unique spokesman for the American experience. And his crisp, articulate manner convinces listeners that he is gifted in these departments.

As well as being steeped in ambition. Obama says he wants to be a transformational” leader, and in private conversations lists four of his predecessors as models. Three are uncontroversial: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The fourth surprises, and confounds, some of Obama’s interlocutors: Ronald Reagan, whose abilities as the Great Communicator overshadow the policy differences that separate the 40th and 44th U.S. presidents.

I mark this judgment to Obama’s credit. It reflects what observant Americans and foreigners have already noticed: Obama is neither the dangerous ideologue nor the naïve, inexperienced goody-goody that his harshest critics depict. He is a pragmatist prepared to deal with whatever devils stand between him and his goals, as long as he can plausibly claim not to have sacrificed the goals themselves. He wants every meeting to end with a decision and a check list of who will do what to implement it.

The striking feature of one White House conversation about repairing the U.S. economy a few months ago was the president posing time and again questions that sought a mechanical fix for the problems under discussion,” recalls one participant. He showed little interest in the broad sweep of history” or economic theory. He just wanted to know what would work.”

But Obama’s pragmatism and his penchant for message control have brought mixed results in both domestic and foreign policy, and a steady slide in approval ratings at home. He must now ask himself the key question about his particular brand of narrowly focused problem-solving and his confidence that he can persuade the public to credit his intentions rather than his results: Are they really suited to the enormous problems he has inherited, and to new ones he has helped create?

The Obama White House claims – in my view, credibly – to have staved off economic disaster with a hugely expensive stimulus spending bill, but must acknowledge in the next breath that unemployment remains stuck around 9.5 percent, well above official predictions. This leaves voters to sort out for themselves whether to reward Obama and the Democrats for not making things worse, or to punish them for not making things much better.

A mid-summer opinion poll by CBS News shows voters swinging more to the punitive side: Three-quarters of those surveyed said the stimulus bill had not improved the economy. Only one-quarter approved of the muddled health care reform that Obama made his top legislative priority (and then left in the inept hands of his party’s Congressional leadership to craft). A convoluted, cautious financial reform law is likely to be equally unloved as its strained compromises become more apparent. These messy debates and votes in Congress have played out in front of the debilitating, seemingly non-stop horror movie of the Gulf oil spill, making it easy to understand why Obama’s political team fears that Democrats could lose control of the House of Representatives and with it the national agenda in November, just as Bill Clinton did in his first mid-term election, in 1994.

Obama of course does not enjoy a monopoly on sagging polls and national discontent. Incumbents of all shades are being reviled as they seek to reason with their fuming constituents here and abroad. Britain has already thrown the rascals out and turned in electoral desperation to an unfamiliar coalition government. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are under withering fire at home, Japan has retreated into electing leaderless governments and the Group of 8 industrial nations, with Obama’s blessing, has quietly ceded its international agenda-setting powers to the Group of 20–a move that brings India and China to the top table of international politics while bypassing the deepening irrelevance of the United Nations in all but humanitarian crises.

This is the paradox of the Age of Obama: The financial meltdown of 2008 and its lingering grip have in country after country drained the confidence of people in their own governments, international bodies and big business – even as the harm done underlines the need for protections that can only be provided by those very institutions. It is Catch-22 on a global scale.

There lies the ultimate danger for Team Obama. As great a communicator as Obama is and aspires to be, he has been unable to fashion a compelling narrative that connects the middling means of compromise that he has had to pursue to the grand goals he continues to promise to achieve. As with most of humankind, Obama’s strengths quickly become his weaknesses when pushed too far. He practices his disciplined, methodical examination of each problem largely in isolation from the consequences it creates for his over-all agenda of governance and that of his domestic and foreign allies.

This is true on health care and it is true on the economy, where he has alienated large segments of the business community by both word and deed. Obama resorts to scathing denunciations of fat cat” bankers and some institutional investors when public opinion is enflamed – seeming to protecting himself at their expense–and then appeals to entrepreneurs for cooperation in repairing the economy in quieter times. It is above all the unpredictability that Obama’s aloof style, and change agenda, interject into the way Americans will bank and do business that unsettles a community that about which the president seems ambivalent.

And the same is true if in different form on America’s attitude toward the Middle East, Iran, China, Afghanistan, global trade, Europe and many other topics.

The most salient, and perhaps alarming, fact about Obama’s foreign policy today is that it brings him and the Democrats no significant boost with the American public to offset the inevitable costs of pursuing an agenda of change at home. Obama has in fact left large groups of Americans interested in foreign policy either mystified or irritated about his intentions in asserting American leadership abroad.

This is not to minimize the powerful signal sent to the rest of the world by the election of our first African-American president and his early initiatives to repair America’s battered image abroad. And he deserves high marks for assembling an experienced, thoughtful foreign policy team headed by his one-time rival, Hillary Clinton. She has gracefully worked within the tightly centralized system that leaves decision-making to the president and implementation to his cabinet.

But after the promising start, this administration’s actual dealings with foreign governments over the past year have produced little perceived gain for U.S. interests. Obama’s outreach to Iran has been ignored. A broader attempt to communicate with Muslims around the world has stalled as the president first tried to pressure Israel into a comprehensive settlement freeze and then had to retreat. His escalation in Afghanistan had to be made palatable for the left wing of the Democratic party with a pledge to begin withdrawals in July, 2011 – thereby confusing America’s Afghan and Pakistani allies as well as perhaps his own commanders. And so on.

Obama was reportedly asked in a recent private conversation if it was possible today to construct a foreign-policy framework with the clarity that the containment doctrine brought to the Cold War era. That will be for my second term,” the president responded, quickly adding, if I have a second term,” evidently to avoid appearing over-confident.

The president may have been simply brushing off a pesky questioner. But his actions fit his description of being too busy putting out fires to worry much about building a better fire department. George W. Bush could only see forests and never thought about the trees. Barack Obama is an expert on each tree that he has to fell or spare, but leaves the impression of not often glimpsing the forest.

That I believe explains the pattern of Obama having invested more energy and attention in dealing with U.S. adversaries –focusing on the problems, or perhaps the trees – than with U.S. allies, toward whom he has been surprisingly indifferent. Russia got a reset in relations, a new START treaty and the removal of advanced U.S. missile defense systems from its borders. Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown got the back of Obama’s protocol hand when each sought to become Obama’s BFA–Best Friend Abroad. Japan’s unsteady coalition government was told to take a hike when it sought to change an Okinawa basing agreement. The less said about the chilly initial meeting between Obama and King Abullah of Saudi Arabia the better for everyone.

There are now signs that the White House has rethought its earlier what-can-you-do-for-me-right-now’ approach toward foreign allies. Sarkozy has been wooed with a private White House dinner, David Cameron and William Hague are welcome visitors to Washington, and the White House was quick to assure Italian President Giorgio Napolitano that the administration would not take advantage of the sudden weakness of the euro as Greece’s financial squeeze worsened in May. Both Binyamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah have had friendlier meetings with Obama.

Some of this is due to the shock senior Obama officials received at the chaotic U.N.-sponsored climate change conference in Copenhagen in December. The U.N.’s unwieldy system and the unyielding stands of China and India there have focused Washington much more on working with familiar friends with similar values, and on making the G‑20 a more effective steering group for the U.N.

Absorbing these lessons represent a modest but promising step forward for Obama, who now seems to recognize that he has something to learn from U.S. friends abroad in knitting together a coherent foreign policy that goes beyond a collection of individual decisions. To halt the worrying erosion of public support, Team Obama must acknowledge that it was not simply an innocent bystander in this decline. That in turn would show that they believe (as I do) that the decline is reversible by steadier leadership. Obama must also show more convincingly that he does not believe that his job has become managing an America in decline or a post-American” world. What is important after a stretch of the kind of stalls and reverses that Obama has experienced in recent months is how quickly and deftly leaders make needed adjustments. The November elections impose that opportunity on Obama.

Jim Hoagland of The Washington Post has won two Pulitzer prizes and is currently a Contributing Editor for the newspaper. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the president's advisory board of the University of South Carolina.