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.