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President Obama's Failure
It's the Man and also the System
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There are obviously people who voted for President Obama and think he’s done a great job — but there are just a lot fewer of them than there used to be.

I was reminded of this when I got an email the other day commenting on my column last week on US policy in the Middle East: “Obama does not have a good track record of executing anything. Lots of speech, little follow through. I had great hopes when he was elected…”

But the undeniable fact that Obama’s been a disappointment to many of his supporters — his approval ratings are stuck in the low 40s — is not all his fault. Part of it is the nature of the peculiar American political system. Thus, as a president who doesn’t control Congress, at a time when party leadership, especially among Republicans, is weaker than ever, the ability to pass major legislation, or indeed almost any legislation, is greatly reduced.

The current Congress, it’s been well documented, has achieved less than any Congress in modern history. And congressional approval ratings — in November they nadired at an all-time modern low of 9%, which according to Gallup was a lower rating than Americans accorded cockroaches, hemorrhoids or Genghis Khan — show that the American public is fully aware of how unproductive, or even counterproductive, Congress is. A do-nothing Congress is not Obama’s fault, but with the economy and job growth continuing to sputter, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue get blamed.

Indeed, there is an element of perversity in some of the Republican opposition: better to do nothing and sink your overall congressional rating — and damage your country while you’re at it — so long as your inaction can negatively impact Obama. And here’s the worst of it: despite Congress’s abysmal rating generically, because of gerrymandering and the corruption that manifests itself in millions of dollars pouring into local elections from out of state, incumbents are as safe as British parliament members once were in rotten boroughs. And, of course, if an outsider somehow does find his way into the Senate or the House — even congressmen retire or die, though not nearly fast enough — they are quickly co-opted by the system.

Part of Obama’s problem you can lay at the feet of our Founding Fathers, who designed our system of government for a much less complicated time, a time when electricity and motorized transportation, not to mention the internet, drones, and same-sex marriage, and indeed almost everything else about our current way of life, lay in the future. In those days, our forefathers were more fearful of an authoritarian government than of a dysfunctional one — and of a runaway horse than of runaway corruption. (And we have members on today’s Supreme Court whose primary concern is that their answers to today’s problems would satisfy those whose life experience had more in common with the Rome of the 1st Century than America of the 21st.)

The end of the Cold War, while certainly welcome for turning back the nuclear doomsday clock, made foreign policy a considerably more complex endeavor. Nearly a quarter century after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the fall-out, at least in Washington, from moving from a two-sided world to a multi-faceted one, continues. George W. Bush’s disastrous forays into Iraq and Afghanistan certainly helped poison the playing field for his successor; and the Arab Spring, which led to the overthrow of ”our” dictator in Cairo and the uncontrollable civil war in Syria, has fueled such an angst in the region that arch-enemies Israel and Saudi Arabia are now coordinating their Iranian position in opposition to Obama’s.

But even with the deck stacked against him, the perception of Obama as weak and inept in today’s globalized world is partially self-inflicted. It began in his famous Cairo speech in June 2009 when he encouraged the Arab World to believe he was ready to push Israel into a two-state solution. Unfortunately, a few dismissive words from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Obama limped away, bloodied in the world’s eyes not six months into his presidency.

More recently, his redrawing of the red line in Syria’s civil war — though the result, keeping the US out of direct military involvement there, was certainly the popular choice — only reinforced the image of a president ill-equipped for the international scene. Russian President Putin’s aggression in Crimea was another one of those no-win situations that hasn’t bolstered Obama’s image.

His early (and still) much-ballyhooed pivot to Asia has even further underlined his fecklessness. Nationalism is rearing its aggressive head throughout Asia. Not only is China roiling the seas it shares with Japan and the Philippines and Vietnam, but even close US allies Japan and South Korea are at each other’s throats in a way they haven’t been for decades. All this turmoil is undermining Obama’s Asian stance even as he, belatedly, tours this pivotal region.

Nor did the Nobel Peace Committee help President Obama by rewarding his rhetoric. Ironically, a big part of Obama’s problem has indeed been his skill as a speechifier — especially when set against his skill as a manager. And by rewarding Obama’s promise, and not the results, the Nobel Peace Prize set a marker of failure early on that has grown more pronounced with the passage of time and the failure of policy.

Even the victory lap he earned from the most important piece of legislature from his presidency, his healthcare bill, was squandered by its amateurish roll-out. It’s hard to imagine a more skilled executive, a Lyndon Johnson, or a Richard Nixon for that matter, wouldn’t have micro-managed his most significant contribution to America’s future to assure it was ready for prime-time.

Obama is simply not an experienced executive; his overall managerial experience, before moving into what is still the most powerful job in the world, was almost non-existent. And we can blame Obama’s lack of experience, too, on our Founding Fathers, who in addition to creating a divide and (somehow) rule regime in Washington, permitted a chief executive to emerge, like Athena, full-grown — but unfortunately not fully equipped for battle.

Ideally, we should switch to a parliamentary system, in which the individual who ends up as prime minister has not just come up through the system as the choice of his peers, but the majority party that he leads controls all the necessary power levers. And successful parliamentary systems are considerably less partisan than our system, where the State Department and other key agencies are disrupted every four or eight years by a flood of non-entities at the top being rewarded for picking the right horse — and backing it with millions.

One of the few modern presidents to actually come up through the political system was Lyndon Johnson — and that was a tragic fluke. To read Robert Caro’s most recent volume highlighting LBJ’s first months in office, and the legislation he bullied through Congress, is to appreciate the advantages of having an experienced Washington hand in charge. Even so, LBJ is primarily remembered for Vietnam, though his canonized predecessor John Kennedy was a more hardline Cold Warrior than his vice-president and had in fact paved the way, as it were, into the Vietnam quicksand.

But it’s certainly correct that for all his legislative experience, Johnson had little direct background in foreign policy. And international failure can be much more damaging to the country than domestic foul-ups. The US electorate, despite the fact that it’s ultimately an all-immigrant population, sees little value in foreign policy expertise. George H.W. Bush, our last president with a foreign policy portfolio, starred on the international stage, successfully dealing with an aggressive Iraq and a collapsed Soviet Union, but didn’t earn a second term at home. The previous president with a deep understanding of international issues was Richard Nixon, whose crooked Watergate dealings overwhelmed his successful pivot to China, an Asian pivot worth celebrating. Even a parliamentary system, however — and lengthy government experience, domestically and internationally — can’t correct for a flawed character.

Unfortunately, but realistically, there is no way that any foreseeable combination of a US president and a US Congress, and two-thirds of our 50 states, will change the Constitution to a system that permits the president to override Congress or, alternatively, turns him into a figurehead. We are stuck, it appears, with the likelihood of on-and-off stalemate in Washington indefinitely — unfortunately at a time when the erosion of our sole-superpower position makes the world a more delicate place to deal with.

In today’s world, more so than ever, it’s lots of money — almost unimaginable amounts of money, especially when compared to the Washington that Harry Truman or even Richard Nixon knew — combined, to be sure, with a well-run campaign, and maybe a little bit of blind luck, that gets someone to the White House. An improvement over the old days of political hacks in smoke-filled hotel rooms?


Graduating from Yale in 1964, Deford joined the Foreign Service the following year, spending three years in Vietnam. He studied Arabic in Beirut, after which he was assigned to the embassy in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. He was posted to Washington, New York, and Amman, Jordan before joining Merrill Lynch International in 1978. He spent much of a nearly two-decade career with Merrill in the Far East, retiring in 1997 to Maine. He has written a weekly foreign policy column for the local newspaper since 2001. He has served on a number of non-profit boards, including International College in Beirut, the newly-established graduate School for Policy and International Affairs at the the University of Maine and the Neiman Fellows for Journalism at Harvard.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Barack Obama 
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  1. We have not only what the Founders feared – an authoritarian government, but an inept authoritarian government.

    I can’t bear to listen to the President’s speechifying any longer – the cognitive dissonance it produces is too painful. It is the audacity of mendacity.

  2. President Obama’s Failure. It’s the Man and also the System #tlot #obama #system

  3. quercus says:

    I completely concur with Fran Macadam, I can’t bear to listen to the jackass any more either. What an unspeakable disappointment he has been. I voted for him once, though, not twice.

    Can someone, anyone, tell me why in the hell he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize? Has that organization devolved as have many other organizations and institutions?

  4. Art M says:

    “Part of Obama’s problem you can lay at the feet of our Founding Fathers, who designed our system of government for a much less complicated time, a time when electricity and motorized transportation, not to mention the internet, drones, and same-sex marriage, and indeed almost everything else about our current way of life, lay in the future.”

    I used to feel bad because I wasn’t able to go to Yale; however, after having read this article, I don’t feel so bad anymore. It’s the “founding father’s” fault, eh? Sorry, Mac, but I do recall the founding fathers putting this pesky little sentence in the Constitution stipulating that the President must be a natural born American citizen. Ooops, that kind of leaves Obama out now doesn’t it? Oh, but the problem can solved with a fake birth certificate, so let’s do that. Don’t worry no one will notice the amateurish attempt at forgery, and the insulting of the intelligence of the American people with such High School antics. Oh, but we the people let it slide. I mean, well, y’know, he’s already in office and those fumbling founding fathers didn’t know anything about cell phones and cable TV? This is probably a good time for one of those “reap what you sow” statements.

    Mac, you might want to sit down for this one, I mean I hate to be the one to break it to you (well, not really) but the Constitution of the United States of America has absolutely nothing to do with things. The Constitution of the United States of America is about people. It’s about human tendencies, habits, displayed norms, concepts of right and wrong, the human ability to make mistakes and the recover from those mistakes and the rest of the aspects that make us people and not automatons. And it was based on the experience of history. All history.

    If you’re still sitting Mac, good, because here come another one: the primary job of Congress is NOT to pass laws, the primary job of the Congress is to govern. The original intent was that thru our representatives, Congress would decide what was necessary for the general welfare of the nation, and then task the President with it carrying out . Y’know, the President was to execute what Congress mandated, not the other way round, because if it were the other way round, that would tend to hand over all of the power to one man. The centralization of power was a fear the founding fathers lived and learned from, kind of like what we are re-learning today. For a very specific reason the American people have begun to judge the activities of their congressional reps by how many laws those reps get enacted. That’s kind of like saying that Joe DiMaggio was a good baseball player because he was so photogenic, or he could sing well. Do you know how many laws we as a nation have on the books? I am told the number is in the 10’s of 1000’s, and I believe it. But what happens when you have so many laws that any more laws are simply re-re-re-re-issues of previous laws? As counter-intuitive as it might seem, you reach a point that you have so many laws that you have no laws. The individual edicts begin to step on each other, until you reach the condition that is just outside your door right now: utter chaos.

    Gee wiz, Mac, are the dots too far apart for you to connect them? You imply that the Constitution needs to be changed, “modernized” for cell phone activity and such, and yet isn’t that what the Obama mob has done? Why, they took that little sentence about Presidentital qualifications right out of there. Changed the Constitution so that it’s more trendy and realistic for these modern times. And look at the shite-storm we are in now. Isn’t Constitution changing fun?

    The problem, Mac, is us. Starting at the top, you need to take a fire hose and a fire ax to that metastasized cancer called the American Mainstream News Media. You know who I’m talking about. James Clapper got up in front of Congress and lied his arse off. He lied to Congress, he lied to the American people, and not only is this felon not in jail, he still has his job. I suppose, however, if Obama fired all the liars and felons on his staff we’d be calling him “The Lone Ranger”, but he won’t fire anybody because he doesn’t have to. ( I will leave such winners as the criminal Eric Holder and his Fast and Furious, that complete waste of time Hillary, the liar and sleazeball Lois Lerner and her mob of an IRS, et al, for another day).

    That is the point: he doesn’t have to.

    It’s curious that Richard Nixon was hounded, lambasted, and eventually driven from office by a press that was angry because he had lied about what he knew and when. Yet that same press industry can’t seem to find it within themselves to ask why the above mentioned criminals are still at their posts. Mac, you can whine about Obama, Congress, even hubcaps that roll off into the weeds, but nothing will be gained until the elected (and the non-elected) officials of this country are called to task, which is up to the press, even if it is made up of gutless, yellow weenies. So, Mac, as a favor for the rest of us who long ago figured out what kind of loser Obama is, what a den of thieves and corruption our Congress has become, why don’t you use your talents to try and start a fire under the press, instead of trying to blame it on anyone else. And certainly, stop trying to change the one thing that may be able to get us out of this mess if we would just grow enough manhood to enforce it.

    Oh, one more thing, Mac, and pardon my boldness, but could you write a second piece for The Unz Review wherein you would tell us all precisely what you would change with the Constitution? I would like that, and I’m hoping that others would as well. Specifically, I’d like to know what you would add for cell phones that is not already covered by the 1st and 4th amendments.

  5. Ah, and now the structure, which the author is clearly part of, advances up the hierarchy of types from apologetics to meta-apologetics.

    Actually Obama is exactly what those who control and script the Punch & Judy Show required, and he has done exactly what he has been told to do, along with most Democrats. But the same can be said also of Bush and the Republicans, and also of Clinton and so forth.

    All in all, professional wrestling is the more authentic spectacle. It at least requires some basic athletic ability and a knack for melodrama and complex choreography.

  6. Joe says:

    Once upon a time, the Democrats said that Dick Cheney ran the entire world from the always powerful Office of the Vice President.

    Then, the Democrats say that the President is powerless because of the system around him. That a President can’t do much more than name the Presidential pooch.

    Next, you’ll hear the Democrats say that its absolutely vital that you vote Democrat to keep the evil Republicans from controlling the incredibly office of the Presidency. They’ll say that it will absolutely be the end of the world if a Republican gets elected.

    What comes after that depends of course on the election results. Either they’ll be fundraising using the claims that the end of the world is at hand because the Republicans now control the incredibly powerful offices of the President and VP again, or they’ll be telling us all how we have to accept rule by bankers, relentless spying, and endless war because in our system the President is too weak to order the lunch he desires.

  7. KA says: • Website

    Constitution has replaced the organized religion. It has different interpretations and expositions.
    It has its own temple and votaries with obscure chants and hymns. Clang and sound or uneven intonation can set people against people . It does not even claim of being divine .

  8. Priss Factor [AKA "Andrea Ostrov Letania"] says: • Website

    How nice it would have been if a do-nothing-Congress had not endorsed the Iraq War.

    American problem has nothing to do with Congress, which is filled puppets of oligarchs.

  9. Priss Factor [AKA "Andrea Ostrov Letania"] says: • Website

    We have had an activist court, and what did it give us?

    ‘Affirmative action’ and ‘gay marriage’ by a bunch of judgepackers.

  10. Priss Factor [AKA "Andrea Ostrov Letania"] says: • Website

    “Even so, LBJ is primarily remembered for Vietnam, though his canonized predecessor John Kennedy was a more hard-line Cold Warrior than his vice-president and had in fact paved the way, as it were, into the Vietnam quicksand.”

    Vietnam turned into a tragedy, but what was the US to do? Just do nothing while a communist power swallows and invades a key ally?

    During the Cold War, US was committed to fighting for its allies to maintain its credibility as a great power that watches out for its friends.

    The only good argument is that Western powers should not have divided Vietnam in the first place. But neither Kennedy nor Johnson were responsible for that. They inherited the alliance with South Vietnam and were obligated to come to its defense.

  11. There were no treaty obligations between South Vietnam and the US,, nor was South Vietnam a member of SEATO, though it later had observer status. The US warmongers did try to justify the intervention using SEATO obligations but it was a transparent fraud even at the time. Indeed, SEATO itself was a fraud, with only two countries in Southeast Asia as members (Thailand and the Philippines).

  12. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “paved the way, as it were, into the Vietnam quicksand.” great use of metaphor!

  13. Priss Factor [AKA "Andrea Ostrov Letania"] says: • Website

    “There were no treaty obligations between South Vietnam and the US,, nor was South Vietnam a member of SEATO, though it later had observer status.”

    It’s not just a matter of treaties.

    US helped create south Vietnam and pledged to the world that it would contain communism.

  14. While I agree with the authors comments, I believe that a significant reason for Obama’s ” “failures” (failure to do what is right for the American public) is that from the very beginning he was captured by corporate interests. He was groomed and supported during his early and short political career in Illinois by the Pritzkers and Crowns. Paying part of his debt by appointing Penny Pritzker, a major fraudster in the banking crisis, to be Secretary of Commerce. The Hamilton Project, a democrat “financial think tank/lobbyist” funded by Robert Rubin was an early Wall Street supporter. He appoint Rubin and others from the organization to high level positions.

    Many of his decisions like groveling before the Israeli Lobby weren’t due to inexperience just the opposite, look at the political careers of those that criticized Israel. Not prosecuting the fraud on Wall Street was not due to inexperience. Fomenting chaos in Eastern Europe was premedited by forces he condoned.

    Yes, Obama is inexperienced but, face it, he is a puppet for the “deep government”, which rules this country.

  15. Rod1963 says:

    Even before Obama was elected you could see he was a puppet of the oligarchs. Look you don’t elected president without owing a lot of favors to the very rich who put you in and Obama did, he spent a lot of years helping his backers out via QE and TARP and other handout programs for the banksters.

    Now despite being a puppet, the office of the president carries a tremendous amount of power(which is why big money interests are the first to bankroll presidential candidates so as to get access to them when they need favorable legislation, etc). POTUS a modern day Caesar Augustus for all intents. He’s the leader of his party; commander of the military; has the authority to unilaterally declare war(it’s not legal but since Congress has abdicated it’s role it went to the executive); has the discretion to enforce or not enforce laws as he sees fit; he has the authority to alter policy/legislation at will as demonstrated by his modifications to Obamacare, border enforcement, shutting down the government at will, etc. AND MOST IMPORTANTLY: He can now order the targeted killing of Americans anywhere in the world by fiat and answers to no one on this.

    Bottom line: Anyone who tells you POTUS is some powerless position is blowing smoke. The position has been accruing more and more power over the last couple of decades and it doesn’t even bare a resemblance to earlier presidencies of the first half of the twentieth century.

    We should be worried.

  16. No one believes that POTUS is a powerless position, quite the opposite, as you have clearly stated. My point, which I believe the facts support, is that Obama is a puppet and that he is doing the bidding of those behind the curtain.

    A recent study by professors from Princeton and Northwestern showed that the public has almost zero influence on government policies. It’s the 1%, or more likely the 0.01%, special interest lobbies and corporations that determine what the government does. And they put the one that best supports their interest into office. The American sheeple actually believe they have a choice in presidential elections.

    Yes, Obama, as POTUS, has almost unlimited authoritarian power, but this first black president has been conditioned to obey his masters. Why else in his final term would he grovel before Netanyahoo and let the Israeli lobby dictate American policies. He does what he’s told to do. Even the SCOTUS has been corrupted as has the Congress.

    You are exactly right when you state “We should be worried” because as the power of POTUS grows with every president, we will eventually elect psycopath like McCain or some Neocon that will take us to the final conflict.

  17. “US helped create south Vietnam and pledged to the world that it would contain communism.”

    Very droll.

  18. Rod1963 says:

    Oh I agree that the voting public has almost no influence on politicians. It’s a pay to play system, you either have the money to buy what legislation you desire or it doesn’t get done.

    And yes the Israeli/Jewish lobby has a tremendous influence on those who wish to become POTUS and even in domestic policy decisions as well. Heck they vet those want to be president. Take Obama, even when he was a senator, he was already being tutored by Robert Rubin(Goldman-Sach’s alumni who promoted a litany of destructive economic legislation during the Clinton years. He helped keep CDO’s and derivatives deregulated, he supported ending Glass-Stegall and supported NAFTA among other things. IOW a oligarch’s oligarch). This meant he was already a tool of the elites who run this country behind the scenes.

    And the Neo-Con’s? They never left, they just rebranded themselves. PNAC has now become FPI – Foreign Policy Initiative under Robert Kagan(whose wife is Victoria Nuland who is neck deep in the fomenting of the Ukrainian revolution). Robert Kagan is also a foreign policy adviser to Hillary and McCain.

    If one examines the brain trust behind presidential hopefuls, it really doesn’t matter who gets voted in. They all have the same sort of corrupt insiders and Neo-Con worms advising them.

    Braintrust link:;_ylt=AwrSyCNa.URTkEsALo3_wgt.

    Meet the new boss same as the old boss.

    And it won’t end well. Why? Because these beltway dwelling, dim witted statists, oligarchs and dual pass port holding tribalists can’t see they’ve wrecked America and it’s just a matter of time before the bullshit and fiat money can’t cover up the cancers eating away at the U.S.

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