international analysis and commentary

An early assessment of the Obama presidency

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After more than one hundred days facing immense difficulties, President Obama’s popularity remains as strong as ever. By a two to one margin, according to a recent poll, Americans think he is doing better in foreign policy than his predecessor. Perhaps the first principle of leadership is to successfully pick your predecessor – Obama has done well in this. But he also has inherited grave crises. As Rahm Emmanuel, the President’s chief of staff, has remarked, “Never waste a crisis.” The question remains whether these crises can be dealt with successfully or whether they will amount to a poisoned chalice. A related question is whether we are witnessing an ordinary turn of the political cycle or something more, which has to do with Obama’s promise of “change.” How big will the change actually be?

First, let us look at the President’s style. Obama already has written the best memoirs of any president – living or dead – even before he ever thought of running for the office. He is intellectual and thoughtful; his personal method is cool, modulated and modulating. He listens more than he speaks and before he speaks. He has not had much experience before the presidency as a decision maker, but is a very quick study. He belongs to the pragmatic center-left as a Democrat and he is trying to find his way in the center by creating a new political center.

Previous presidents provide models in this respect. Obama and his White House have given thought to previous presidents. Three in particular are discussed: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.  Because Obama is the first African-American president, there are obvious parallels to Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. Also, the current president is a lean and lanky lawyer from Illinois, eloquent, and not long on the national stage. One comparison is of course to the “mythical Lincoln,” the leader transcending politics, but Lincoln was in fact a pragmatic politician searching for a way through crisis, and the real Lincoln in this respect is more similar to the real Obama.

Is Obama like Roosevelt? The current president inherits a great economic crisis. Roosevelt saw himself as a leader resorting to improvisation and engaged in what he called “bold persistent experimentation.” This comparison reveals Obama’s large aspirations, but we should recall that it took well into FDR’s first term for the shape of the New Deal to emerge. Obama has taken an early emergency measure, the stimulus program, as well as some steps to regulate the banking system, but the rest remains uncertain.

Is Obama like John F. Kennedy? Like Kennedy, he is young, fresh, and vigorous, with an attractive family. Yet, unlike Kennedy the current president has not had a big failure in his first hundred days or so – such as a Bay of Pigs. Even though relatively inexperienced, Obama has handled events more adroitly than Kennedy did in the early phase. In addition, he is not suspect from the party’s liberal wing as Kennedy was, before he became a liberal icon, a consequence of his assassination. Obama’s task is to define and occupy the center of the political spectrum – not move away from it.

Obama’s background is rooted in domestic challenges: he is famously the community organizer and the Constitutional law professor. Much has been made of his identity and the possible revival of identity politics in the US. He is very much the self-made man from a humble background – a familiar pattern in US political culture. In reality, Obama does not represent some new identity politics and he is not “European” in the sense of overcoming American traditions. Yet he certainly is cosmopolitan – and in this he is in line with not only the president I worked with, Bill Clinton, and John F. Kennedy, but also the first President Bush.

Here we begin to see a link to foreign policy. Obama’s pragmatism has demonstrated his impulse toward realism and away from ideology. He combines the quintessential American theme of “starting over” and optimism about it with being more of a realist in foreign policy.

Confusion in the last decade over American “exceptionalism” has prevailed largely because President George W. Bush and the neoconservatives claimed it only had one definition, based on the notion that American democracy and the free market, as they explained it, were the pinnacle of human development to be exported around the globe. The corollary was that the US engaged in its world mission alone, as the sole superpower, and allies, coalitions of the willing, were followers, not partners.

The new administration, by contrast, believes that in the new era US power must be renewed, but that it can be reinvigorated only by rebuilding traditional alliance and forging new partnerships, including on new issues such as climate change.

Obama has revived diplomacy, which had become defunct under George W. Bush as a primary instrument to advance national interest. The centrality of diplomacy in Obama’s presidency is confirmed by his choice for Secretary of State – Hillary Clinton. This selection has led some to comment that the President has created a “team of rivals,” in the spirit of Lincoln, who chose political rivals for his cabinet. Hillary Clinton, whatever the historical interpretation, has proven herself the team player.

The symbol of one of the main diplomatic moves in the first months of the new administration has been the “reset button,” used to illustrate new relations with Russia, but there is more to it than just resetting some problematic relationships. In our relations with Europe we must consult with our allies and restore the Western alliance, especially in the context of the global economic crisis. The “war on terror,” even as a term, has been demoted, suggesting a much more pragmatic and problem-solving frame of mind. This pragmatic approach is being applied generally to foreign policy issues, including, of course, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Turning to domestic politics, we must recognize that the political parties are in a very different state after the 2008 election: the Republican Party is in a state of meltdown, lacking leadership and ideas, and falling back on narrow old slogans. The Republicans are very far from finding their Bill Clinton to lead them through the political wilderness. Obama has drawn a sharp line with the previous conservative political era by stating his belief in affirmative government as an instrument to advance the interests of ordinary people and to widen opportunity. This is a central concept behind his economic policies, and if the President is successful, the current phase may lead to a new era.

The administration is thinking not just in terms of a successful presidency but of a generational change that underlies a long lasting change. Generations play a formative role in politics, and in today’s America those under 30 years old are a distinct generation – making up 18% of the electorate in 2008, with 66% voting for Obama. They may have been attracted to his style, but there is also a philosophical change: younger Americans consider themselves “liberals” more than any other generation. What underlies such a profound shift is that the US is becoming a more multiracial society in which there will not be a majority race by the year 2050. It is thus crucial that the new generation has a different view of tolerance, as shown by their positions on gay marriage for instance (with a majority in favour). On the economic front, some polls show that younger people support Obama’s budget policies more than other groups (68% for, compared to 55% of all Americans). So beneath the events of the moment Obama is playing for large stakes in fundamentally shifting American politics. And generational change is one of the driving forces. 

The promise of the Obama presidency after its first one hundred days confirms a general rule: beyond picking the right predecessors, presidents have to lead and make choices, even when – perhaps especially when – they have a bitter inheritance.

This article is drawn from a speech given at the Centro Studi Americani, Rome, in May 2009.