When we endorsed Barack Obama, we held out hope that he might be a transformational president. That was clearly the way he viewed himself. He intended a profusion of reform legislation that would remake the U.S. economy. And that ambitious domestic program was to be replicated on the global stage. Just as he would create a new health care system, he would heal conflicts that had tormented humanity for decades, as well as build relations with longtime adversaries. He would succeed where other presidents, many other presidents, had failed.
Of course, it would be hard for any leader to measure up to this ideal. And there are many ways in which he has made little progress, if not outright flopped. Anti-Americanism remains a fact of global opinion; Iran’s march toward the bomb doesn’t look any less plausible; almost nobody (on either side of the divide) has praised Obama’s opening moves in the Middle East peace process.
Yet there are lots of marks on the other side of the ledger. He has used the machinery of the regulatory state as a palliative for environmental depredations and consumer horrors. He has passed a stimulus package that is providing a nontrivial number of jobs and will restore broken infrastructure. And he is on the verge of passing a health care bill that will mark one of the grandest achievements in the history of social policy. All this might not exactly place him in the pantheon next to Franklin Roosevelt, and it won’t satisfy the left wing of his party. But it’s not a bad start, given all the constraints of the political system (and global order) in which he works.
Still, the most consequential action of the first year of his administration is the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. It is a policy that highlights the strengths (and weaknesses) of his presidency—and, in many ways, refutes the right-wing caricature that has slowly morphed into conventional wisdom.
Let’s begin with the conception of the policy and dispose of the idiotic notion that he “dithered” in constructing it. Upon entering office, Obama quickly delivered on his promise to send more troops. When his commander on the ground asked for even larger numbers, the president didn’t automatically accede to the request. He allowed space for a lively intramural debate, consulted experts, and weighed the costs of his options. In the end, he made a decision that has offended the base of his party and possibly injured his future political prospects. On strategic grounds, we believe he made the right choice. But the thoroughness and logic of the process by which he arrived at this decision double our confidence in that choice. This is exactly the type of pragmatism and non-ideological policymaking that sentient humans have craved after the Bush years.
We don’t pretend that the virtues of this process can scrub the messiness from the policy. Obama’s stance toward Pakistan, which is really the central front in the war on terrorism, remains shrouded in mystery—although the imperatives of Islamabad’s domestic politics may preclude the United States from speaking loudly about our increasing presence there. And then there’s the obvious double-talk about quickly withdrawing from a conflict that nobody believes can be quickly settled. But the White House Situation Room was designed to be the seventh level of no-easy-answers hell, and some of this messiness is simply unavoidable.
At the same time, for all our enthusiasm about Obama, there has been something missing. A presidency that was born in idealism has displayed little evidence of it. When Obama unveiled his escalation plan at West Point, he delivered a strangely inert speech that contained too much muddle to inspire. He described U.S. foreign policy as a matter of coldly acting on national interests, then tacked on a paean to American exceptionalism. He decried nation-building, while setting out on a campaign that his commanders describe as the very sort of counterinsurgency that entails constructing schools and governmental institutions.
Idealism is not meant to be the métier of governance. Aides will be ruthlessly stabbed in the back (Greg Craig); great goals will likely be sacrificed (the public option); and morally dubious characters will be engaged (Burma). Yet, as we enter the second year of the Obama presidency, we continue to nurture the hope that the idealism of the campaign will show itself again. There’s a democratic movement emerging in Iran crying out for solidarity-and villains (on Wall Street and in Sudan) who must be spoken of in moralistic language. And, even in Afghanistan, our project clearly entails more than killing Al Qaeda. Our success depends on the birth of a new nation, and, even if this nation won’t be a European social democracy, let alone as open as Iraq, we can demand that it respect certain human rights. Although the second year of Obama’s presidency has not yet begun, we hope that historians will look back and note that it started early in Oslo—that December 2009 marked a new phase. For while there was plenty of realist truth in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, there were also bracing doses of idealism. To quote this stunning address: “Somewhere today, in the here and now, in the world as it is, a soldier sees he’s outgunned, but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protester awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, scrapes together what few coins she has to send that child to school—because she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child’s dreams. Let us live by their example.”