Public-opinion polls in the US indicate a close presidential election in November. While US President Barack Obama outpolls Republican US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on foreign policy, slow economic growth and high unemployment — issues that are far more salient in US elections — favor Romney. And, even on foreign policy, Obama’s critics complain that he has failed to implement the transformational initiatives that he promised four years ago. Are they right?
Obama came to power when both the US and the world economy were in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Indeed, some of Obama’s economic advisers counseled him that unless urgent steps were taken to stimulate the economy, there was a one-in-three chance of entering a full-scale depression.
Thus, although Obama also inherited two ongoing wars, nuclear-proliferation threats from Iran and North Korea and the continuing problem of al-Qaeda’s terrorism, his early months in office were devoted to addressing the economic crisis at home and abroad. His efforts were not a complete success, but he managed to stave off the worst outcome.
Obama’s rhetoric during his 2008 campaign and the first months of his presidency was both inspirational in style and transformational in objective. His first year in office included a speech in Prague in which he established the goal of a nuclear-free world, a speech in Cairo promising a new approach to the Muslim world and his Nobel Peace Prize speech, which promised to “bend history in the direction of justice.”
In part, this series of speeches was tactical. Obama needed to meet his promise to set a new direction in foreign policy while simultaneously managing to juggle the issues left to him by former US president George W. Bush, any of which, if dropped, could still cause a crisis for his presidency. Nonetheless, there is no reason to believe that Obama was being disingenuous about his objectives. His worldview was shaped by the fact that he spent part of his youth in Indonesia and had an African father.
In the words of a recent Brookings Institution book, Obama had an “activist vision of his role in history,” intending to “refurbish the US’ image abroad, especially in the Muslim world; end its involvement in two wars; offer an outstretched hand to Iran; reset relations with Russia as a step toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons; develop significant cooperation with China on both regional and global issues; and make peace in the Middle East.”
However, his record of achievement on these issues has been mixed.
“Seemingly intractable circumstances turned him from the would-be architect of a new global order into a leader focused more on repairing relationships and reacting to crises — most notably the global economic crisis,” the report continued.
And while he eliminated former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and weakened al-Qaeda, some counter-terrorism policies ended up undercutting his appeal in places like the Middle East and Pakistan.
Some of the half-empty glasses were the result of intractable events; some were the product of early naivete, such as the initial approaches to Israel, China and Afghanistan. However, Obama was quick to recover from mistakes in a practical way.
As one of his supporters put it, he is a “pragmatic idealist.”