Obama’s opponents will argue this year that he has been both incompetent and diabolically effective: too weak in defending the nation’s interests, and all too skillful in advancing his socialist agenda. The most disappointed of his former supporters may feel that the hopes he has dashed outweigh the achievements he has won. A year from now, we’ll all know what we think.
What I’ve concluded now is that Obama has shown the main trait we can hope for in a president—an ability to grow and adapt—and that the reason to oppose his reelection would be disagreement with his goals, not that he proved unable to rise to the job. As time has gone on, he has given increasing evidence that the skills he displayed in the campaign were not purely a fluke.
“Three of the most important things he has done are hardest to appreciate,” Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader and an early supporter of Obama’s presidential campaign, told me. Obama had named Daschle to head his health-care initiative as secretary of Health and Human Services, but Daschle withdrew in a controversy over his income-tax payments. He listed three of the achievements that I heard most often in talking with other Obama supporters.
The first is a negative accomplishment: avoiding an economic catastrophe even worse than the one the United States and the world have been through. Jim Webb, who was in the Senate when the Bush administration was requesting the first round of TARP “bailout” funds, said that he called economists he trusted for advice on what to do. “Every one of them said, ‘You have to do this’—vote for the funds,” he told me. “One of them told me, ‘These people need to be punished, but first you have to keep the system from going into cataclysmic default.’”
The second is what Daschle called “the dramatic improvement in the American image abroad.” The daily reports about American problems around the world, the crises in U.S. relations with Pakistan and a few other countries, the ongoing worldwide bull session about whether the U.S. is “in decline”—all of these things mask the broad and dramatic improvement in America’s “soft power” and international standing during Obama’s time. For instance: according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, in 2008 the positive view of the United States in Germany was 31 percent, in France it was 42 percent, and in Japan it was 50 percent. Last year, it was 62 percent in Germany, 75 percent in France, and 85 percent in Japan (the dramatic improvement in Japan was partly in response to U.S. aid after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident early in the year). These changes can make a real difference for American ideals and interests, but it is hard to mention them in American political debates without sounding “French.”
And finally, according to Daschle, the health-care bill that passed so narrowly and is so controversial will, especially if Obama is reelected, rank with Medicare in the list of legislative and social achievements by Democratic presidents. Yes, having helped plan the bill, Daschle is biased—as is Lawrence Summers, who argues that because of the health-care plan, “the historic debate will be whether the accomplishments of his first two years are the most substantial since Lyndon Johnson’s in 1965–66, or the most substantial since FDR’s in 1933–34.”
Other party grandees I spoke with, including Gary Hart and Walter Mondale, who had fought for the nomination that Mondale won in 1984, and Michael Dukakis, who won the nomination in 1988, emphasized how much Obama had accomplished given the economic hole he had to dig out of and the Republicans’ political strategy of simply trying to thwart him. Each had critiques and suggestions on the margin. Dukakis thought there could and should have been a stronger emphasis on public-service jobs—direct hiring of teachers, public-health workers, road builders—as part of an initial stimulus program. “In all the other recessions that I remember, public-service jobs were an important component of fighting unemployment,” he said. “I believe in giving people unemployment checks for half a year or even a year and helping in the course of their job search—and after that, if there simply are not a lot of jobs out there, you take the checks and turn them into jobs. But, for the Republicans these days, public-service jobs are Bolshevik policy”—a slight (but only slight) overstatement of the real Republican opposition to direct job creation through public projects. Mondale wished that Obama had been tougher on the banks and had started campaigning earlier against the Republican strategy of stonewalling his health-care proposals. Hart regretted that Obama had not tried harder to transform the Cold War military structure and contain the defense budget—areas of Hart’s expertise starting with his “defense reform” caucus in the 1980s—or moved more quickly toward disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan. I would add my amazement at the administration’s lackadaisical approach to the crucial business of staffing the government. Three years in, Obama had left more vacancies on the federal bench, and used his recess-appointment power far less often, than any of his recent predecessors. Part of this reflected Republican determination to block his nominations; part, Obama’s decision not to fight.
So where can Obama claim to have shown mastery of the job? In foreign policy, where a president can carry out his own strategy, he has shown that he actually has a strategy to execute. And in management of the domestic economy, he has shown increasing command of the tools of office, in ways surprisingly prefigured by his temperamental opposite, Harry Truman.
Like any president, Obama has had his share of embarrassments and failures in foreign policy. U.S. relations with Israel are near one of their periodic lows and perhaps worse than that, with many people in Israel feeling that they can’t trust Obama, and much of the rest of the world viewing him as having been outmaneuvered by Netanyahu. Relations with Pakistan are worse; the situation in Afghanistan has been contained rather than solved; and then there is Iran. But through his first three years in office, Obama suffered no major international disasters or setbacks, and meanwhile managed surprising progress on many fronts at once. If you were making a list of what has gone right, or not gone as badly wrong as it could have on his watch, it would include:
• containing what could have been an open-ended commitment in Iraq;
• walking a tightrope in Afghanistan: avoiding criticism from the military for doing too little while also preparing a path for withdrawal;
• managing the troubled relationship with Pakistan—including in the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden raid;
• encouraging the Arab Spring events in general, without getting mired in the details of any of them;
• supporting the Europeans during their debt crisis, while keeping the United States somewhat insulated from it; and
• putting U.S. relations with China on a better footing than in many years, a task that has to be among the very most important for any president of the early 21st century.
This last item is one I watched unfold from the beginning of this administration, when I was still based in Beijing. Much like Nixon’s approach to China, I think it will eventually be studied for its skillful combination of hard and soft power, incentives and threats, urgency and patience, plus deliberate—and effective—misdirection. The details are significant:
As Obama began his term, official China was growing smug and prideful. The triumphant Beijing Olympics were just behind it; the American financial collapse symbolized the decline of a superpower and the world’s reliance on its new paymasters, the Chinese. Because of China’s heavy reliance on exports, its labor force was hit harder by the worldwide collapse of demand than that of any other major economy, but the Chinese pulled themselves out far more rapidly. Americans and Europeans dithered about applying stimulus; the Chinese went ahead and applied it, creating jobs for many millions of people and expanding the country’s physical infrastructure in the process.
By the time Obama made his state visit to Shanghai and Beijing, in November 2009, the press in both countries and the rest of the world was primed to present his usual low-key demeanor as servility. The Washington Post and The New York Times contrasted Obama’s supposed hat-in-hand manner with the bravado of Bill Clinton, who had mentioned the Tiananmen Square protests while standing next to President Jiang Zemin.
Yet even as Obama was politely listening to lectures about China’s new superiority, members of his administration were executing an elaborate pincer movement to reestablish American influence, real and perceived, among the growing economies of Asia. In practically every formal statement by U.S. officials, from President Obama to Secretaries Clinton, Geithner, and Gates, U.S. representatives hammered home a single message. The message was that America welcomed rather than feared China’s continued rise. This was directed at a widespread Chinese suspicion: that America would try to thwart China’s continued development because it viewed any increase in Chinese influence as a flat-out loss for the United States.
Many Chinese officials remained skeptical, but the reassurances set the stage for the next phase of the administration’s message: we welcome your rise, but we disagree on the following things—censorship, currency, and pollution, all matters that could be presented as containable items for discussion rather than as inherently threatening aspects of China’s ascent.
In the few months after Obama’s visit to China, some Chinese military and diplomatic officials began believing their own adulatory press clips. China entered its period of what was broadly described as overreach: challenging the Japanese, South Korean, Vietnamese, and Philippine navies with expanded claims of coming supremacy in the South China Sea and the broader Pacific; antagonizing trading partners from Russia to Burma to Australia with more-aggressive practices and claims. Through this period, the U.S. government was stitching up relations with every one of these countries. Part of the message was that with its inevitable extraction from the mire of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States could reassert its presence in the fastest-growing economic region of the world; the other part was that, for all its excesses, the United States was an easier regional power to live with than the Chinese would be.
Two years after Obama’s “humiliating” visit to Shanghai and Beijing, U.S. relations with China were a mix of cooperation and tension, as they had been through the post-Nixon years. But American relations with most other nations in the region were better than since before the Iraq War. In a visit to Australia late in 2011, Obama startled the Chinese leadership but won compliments elsewhere with the announcement of a new permanent U.S. Marine presence in Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast.
The strategy was Sun Tzu–like in its patient pursuit of an objective: reestablishing American hard and soft power while presenting a smiling “We welcome your rise!” face to the Chinese. “It was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see,” Walter Russell Mead, of Bard College, often a critic of the administration, wrote about the announcement of the Australian base. “In the field of foreign policy, this was a coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be.”
In the realm of foreign policy, Barack Obama has learned what every modern president eventually does: despite the dangers, the emergencies, the intractable disagreements, and the life-and-death risks, international affairs naturally claim an ever-growing share of a president’s attention and enthusiasm. On the world stage, he represents an entire mighty country, not one perhaps-embattled party. International figures may be frustrating to deal with—Karzai, Ahmadinejad, Netanyahu in their different ways—but usually they can’t totally thwart or undermine him the way a Mitch McConnell or a Roger Ailes can. He can think big thoughts and announce big plans without seeing them immediately picked apart or ridiculed. And he can dare to devise a long-term strategy, like Obama’s with China, knowing that the tools for carrying it out—in the military, the diplomatic corps, the intelligence agencies, and the rest of the national-security apparatus—are within his line of command.
It is no wonder that the “national-security state” in all its aspects has continued to grow throughout the decades since the beginning of World War II. Defense budgets, intelligence and surveillance networks, private military contractors, irregular forms of war: these and other executive-branch tools of international power work like a ratchet. Some presidents rapidly increase them in times of emergency, as George W. Bush did after the 9/11 attacks. No president scales them back. Thus the imbalance continues to grow between international efforts, where a president has an ever greater array of tools and weapons, and the frustrating domestic arena. Despite having run on his opposition to the Iraq War and overseen the formal U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Barack Obama has, if anything, expanded the range of executive military power, from his unilateral (and mainly successful) decision to intervene in Libya to his expansion of drone attacks.
Think of the contrast with domestic affairs, especially economic management. Here the “chess master” case for Obama is that things did not deteriorate as disastrously as they easily could have. The “pawn” argument is that he was too often the victim of events, a cunning opposition, and his own naïveté—and will survive politically, if he does, thanks mainly to the clumsiness and overreach of his Republican opposition.
The standard view of Obama’s failures in the closely intertwined domestic fields of economic management and political strategy involves this series of mistakes, with cumulatively worsening impact:
• His administration underestimated the severity of the economic crisis from the outset, and therefore
• it proposed too small an offsetting response, while promising too quick a recovery; and meanwhile
• it coddled the financiers who had created the crisis, being quick to cover their losses and very slow to impose any conditions or correctives; while
• it wasted precious “honeymoon” time humoring the congressional committees that dickered over a proposed health-care bill; and throughout this time
• it naively imagined that the congressional Republicans were interested mainly in compromise solutions, which dispirited the administration’s allies and gave Obama a reputation for prizing the appearance of being reasonable over the achievement of his economic goals; and even worse
• it was fatally slow to recognize the Republican strategy of blocking its appointments and filibustering bills—and even when it saw what was happening, it enabled that strategy, by refusing to fight for nominees who encountered resistance (Elizabeth Warren being only the most familiar name on a long list) and failing to fight the routine use of the filibuster, as its predecessors had. And as if all this were not enough, after the rout in the 2010 election
• it self-destructively adopted the Republican claim that the federal deficit was the most immediate threat to the country, even though cutting the budget in response to that threat would make the real emergencies of unemployment and recession worse. And, finally
• it created a disaster that nearly consumed it, by trusting the new congressional Republican majority, now that it had what Obama called “the responsibility to govern,” not to risk a showdown over raising the ceiling of federal borrowing last year.
The list could go on, with items elaborating two main concerns: that the president and his team didn’t know what they were getting into, and that they were always one move behind real-time events in the political combat of today’s Washington.
What is the possible contrary case? Someday, we may know how the president himself might answer that question. (The White House declined our repeated requests for an interview.) His reflections in public have tended to be anodyne laments about the failure of bipartisan spirit; he can’t possibly believe it’s that innocent. But those around him make the case that in addition to being very unlucky (in the circumstances he inherited) and very lucky (in the Republican field that chose to run against him), Obama also shaped his luck by being shrewd, in three significant ways. First, according to this view, he always kept his eye on what mattered most, namely avoiding another recession—and compromised and backtracked only when, in his assessment, the alternative would have been a greater economic risk. Next, he absorbed pummeling by Republicans not so much because he was weak or unsuspecting as because he recognized problems the over-reaching opposition was creating for itself, much as he had during the 2008 primaries (and much as Bill Clinton had in 1995). And finally, that while like all presidents he came in unprepared, he adjusted as fast as anyone could have expected and was increasingly in control of events as time went on. Obviously, these don’t add up to the hopes for a second Lincoln that some of his most fervent backers held four years ago. But I think they are plausible analyses on their own terms.
The first contention—that from beginning to end Obama has chosen the path he thought would minimize new shocks to the economy—accords with normal political logic, since the worst threat to a sitting president is exactly the kind of slowdown Obama has tried to avoid, with mixed results at best through his first three years. It also makes sense of an otherwise disparate pattern of decisions, starting with his administration’s apparent coddling of Wall Street in 2009. This early failure of accountability is the main theme of Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men, and virtually everyone I spoke with said that it created a substantive and symbolic problem the administration has never fully recovered from. Substantive, because of the “moral hazard” created by using public money to guarantee the bonuses and repay the losses of people who had been so recklessly destructive. Symbolic, for all the reasons that eventually came to a head with last year’s Occupy movement.
An official familiar with the administration’s economic policy told me: “The recapitalization of the banks was a good idea, and necessary. But we did not put enough conditions on [their] getting the money. Ultimately not being tougher with the guys that got the money is the thing that overthrows the government twice—in 2008 [in a reaction against Bush’s TARP plan] and again in 2010.”
Keeping the system going was the guideline during the early days of financial rescue, and again later during the argument over government shutdowns and the raising of the debt ceiling. During the initial rescue, Obama’s response was of course shaped by the technocrat circle that guided the effort. From their experience with Asian and Latin American financial panics during the Clinton era, the likes of Summers, Geithner, and Orszag understood that their task was akin to emergency-room medicine, or firefighting. They had to contain the emergency first, because otherwise there was no telling how dire the consequences could be, and worry about anything else later. “Larry, Tim, Peter—when they heard about restricting bonuses or compensation, they would think, These are people’s contracts, we can’t change their contracts,” a member of the executive branch said. “But really it was the idea that the problem was enormous, the economy is in big trouble, do we want to make enemies while we’re putting out the fire? Usually they opted for whatever they thought would keep the economy going.” This rings true about the mood in the middle of an emergency, and also about the cultural tone-deafness that can affect people who all come from the same rarefied world.
So too during the showdowns with Congress over keeping the government funded, or raising the debt ceiling to prevent a default on Treasury notes. After the Republicans gained control of the House in the 2010 midterms, the negotiating team on the administration side was heavy on Clinton-era veterans who had been through previous dealings with a Republican Congress. Gene Sperling, who succeeded Summers as head of the National Economic Council and had held the same job during the Clinton years, and Jacob Lew, who succeeded Peter Orszag at the Office of Management and Budget and then William Daley as chief of staff, had dealt with Speaker Newt Gingrich and his new Republican majority in the 1995 budget battle that led to a government shutdown. Jason Furman, now Sperling’s deputy at the NEC, was a young staff economist on Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers at about the same time.
As they tried to arrange budget agreements with Speaker John Boehner and his new majority, they seemed to be the last people in Washington to recognize how different the circumstances were. The 54 new Republican representatives who arrived with Newt Gingrich mainly owed their positions to him. Or they thought they did: Gingrich’s “Contract With America” had been the unified nationwide platform for the GOP surge that year. When Bill Clinton sat down to negotiate with him, a deal made with Gingrich was a deal that would stick.
But the Obama team got clearer and clearer signals—first in budget negotiations in the spring, then in votes on the debt ceiling in the summer, and then in the confrontation over the payroll-tax holiday just before Christmas—that Boehner was a leader without a following. The 63 Republican freshmen owed him nothing; many had run against Washington business-as-usual practices that included the GOP establishment. “The Tea Party didn’t want a deal,” Austan Goolsbee told me. “The world understood that default was crazy and would destroy the economy. But hitting the ceiling would force big parts of the government out of business. That’s what they wanted. They weren’t bluffing.”
If keeping the economy growing was so central for Obama, why was the initial stimulus “only” $800 billion? “The case is quite compelling that if more fiscal and monetary expansion had been done at the beginning, things would have been better,” Lawrence Summers told me late last year. “That is my reading of the economic evidence. My understanding of the judgment of political experts is that it wasn’t feasible to do.” Rahm Emanuel told me that within a month of Obama’s election, but still another month before he took office, “the respectable range for how much stimulus you would need jumped from $400 billion to $800 billion.” In retrospect it should have been larger—but, Emanuel says, “in the Congress and the opinion pages, the line between ‘prudent’ and ‘crazy spendthrift’ was $800 billion. A dollar less, and you were a statesman. A dollar more, you were irresponsible.” The three Republicans who voted for the stimulus bill—Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and about-to-be-Democrat Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania—all complained that it was far too large, as did Jim Webb and many other Democrats.
The second, related argument is that Obama’s passive, even withdrawn-seeming stance as “the only adult in the room” has positioned him better for reelection—and thus for his best chance to lock in the gains he has made—than a more directly combative approach would have. Not until Obama writes his post-presidential sequel to Dreams From My Father, and perhaps not even then, will we know all the sources of his seeming horror of partisan conflict. His above-the-fray pose was certainly the key to his rise in the first place. I was in the arena in Boston when he declared in his 2004 convention speech, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.” The house erupted in cheers, and America’s first black president could not have gone on to win had he struck a more strident or divisive tone.
But lines like that described an ideal, not an operational reality, and once Obama entered office, his opponents didn’t buy them. Late last year John Barrasso, a Republican senator from Wyoming, explained to me that his colleagues would have been “only too willing” to work with Obama, if he had not, in Barrasso’s view, “frozen us out” by listening only to Nancy Pelosi and the extreme-liberal base.
If Obama really thought that America had moved past partisan division, then he was too innocent for the job. But part of political leadership is being able to project a positive idealism that you know is at odds with the real world. I am ready to believe that Obama adopted this faux-harmonious tone, apart from its being his natural register, as a way to win the election, and as a marker for what he hoped America could become, and—crucially—that once in office, he maintained it as a sound position for himself as he moved toward reelection. Late last year, he also applied it with chess-master skill against the congressional Republicans, in daring them to let the widely popular payroll-tax cut expire at the start of an election year. They backed off, and when the dust settled, the Republicans found themselves at an unaccustomed political disadvantage. Having secured an agreement on government funding for the rest of the year, Obama had taken one of their favorite tools, the threat of a government shutdown, out of their hands through the campaign season. And after three years of seeming to shy from “partisan” rhetoric, he began linking the slate of GOP presidential contenders to the Tea Party–dominated Republican Congress, whose approval ratings were far worse than his own.
The payoff for Obama in a strategy of remaining Mr. Reasonable is the prospect of occupying the acceptable center, as the Tea Party spins the Republican Party off to the extreme. The risk is that even if the Republicans make themselves unpopular through filibuster and obstruction, they make Obama look weak—and that’s worse.
Obama’s future, and his effectiveness, depend on that balance, whose results we will see this year. My impression from recent evidence is that he has found his footing, and has come to understand how to use the constrained but still real powers of a president facing congressional opposition—just in time. The most enlightening document I found for assessing Obama’s recent moves turns out to be 66 years old.
This is a memorandum that James H. Rowe Jr., a Harvard-trained lawyer who had been Oliver Wendell Holmes’s last law clerk on the Supreme Court and after World War II was a young official at the Bureau of the Budget, wrote to President Harry Truman soon after the midterm elections of 1946. In that election, the Republicans gained 55 seats in the House and 12 in the Senate, to take control of both houses for the first time since before the New Deal. Truman was if anything less prepared, for more overwhelming responsibilities, than Obama was. Three months after he unexpectedly became president upon Franklin Roosevelt’s death, he had to decide on the use of atomic weapons whose very existence FDR had never let him know about. After that came management of post-war Europe and Asia. But the fundamentals of Truman’s political situation, as described in Rowe’s memo, are amazingly similar to those Obama now faces.
Rowe tells Truman that, with the Republican victory, he should be prepared for obstruction and nonstop partisan stalemate, not because of strategic mistakes on his side but because this is the basic nature of the American system. Anyone who thinks that American politics is more embattled “than ever,” as I am often tempted to, should read this memo (and Samuel Popkin’s exegesis of it, in The Candidate).
Rowe points out that when an opposing party holds Congress, it will always view weakening the president as its paramount goal. It will launch as many congressional investigations as possible, in hopes of finding scandal in an administration or at least distracting its appointees. It will block nominations and try to frustrate a president’s attempts to keep the executive branch operational. Its leaders will define “compromise” as the president’s accepting all of their demands and abandoning his own. If the leaders of Congress do finally strike a deal with the administration, a president should be wary. The “simple fact” about most deals with a congressional opposition, he writes, is that “they just won’t work under the American two-party system”:
For “cooperation” is a one-way street. The President can discipline the Executive Branch sufficiently by exercising his right to hire and fire; he can force it to cooperate. The Republican leaders may agree to have co-equal responsibility for executing the agreements reached on policy but they do not have co-equal power “to deliver” … [Congress] has no parliamentary discipline … for a very simple reason—Congressmen are not representatives of all the people; they represent only their own districts or sections and the particular pressure groups within those sections which are vital to them. No Congressional leader can commit his party because no commitments are binding upon the Members except those they may personally make to their own sections.
Negative discipline, of the kind that Mitch McConnell has exercised to keep Senate Republicans voting as a bloc against Obama’s proposals, is easier to maintain than positive discipline, of the kind Newt Gingrich wielded temporarily over his Republican majority. That is the exception. A president “should first of all accept the inevitability that formal cooperation is unworkable,” Rowe concludes. “Despite his sincere desire to cooperate, he should accept the verdict of the politicians, of history, and of the disinterested students of government.”
And so Rowe offers his recommendation. With legislative ambitions blocked, with many appointments left to languish, with rear-guard battles under way to uphold vetoes and fend off investigation, a president should resort to the only tool that is uniquely his: the ability to speak to all of the public. He should prepare the ground by sounding reasonable and conciliatory, in light of an unquenchable if unrealistic belief that parties should be able to get along. (“Public demand for bipartisan cooperation will probably continue. The realpolitik of the situation requires that there be some gestures toward cooperation.”) Then, with his bona fides established, the president can move into the next election, making a clear case for his side.
If Barack Obama loses this fall, he will forever seem a disappointment: a symbolically important but accidental figure who raised hopes he could not fulfill and met difficulties he did not know how to surmount. He meant to show the unity of America but only underscored its division. As a candidate, he symbolized transformation; in office, he applied incrementalism and demonstrated the limits of change. His most important achievement, helping forestall a second Great Depression, will be taken for granted or discounted in the dismay about the economic problems he did not solve. His main legislative accomplishment, the health-care bill, may well be overturned; his effect on America’s international standing will pass; his talk about bridging the partisan divide will seem one more sign of his fatal naïveté. If he is reelected, he will have a chance to solidify what he has accomplished and, more important, build on what he has learned. All of this is additional motivation, as if he needed any, for him to drive for reelection; none of it makes him any more palatable to those who oppose him and his goals.
And for those who supported him the first time, as I did? To me, the evidence suggests that given a second term, he would have a better chance of becoming the figure so many people imagined.