‘Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can!’ With these exuberant assurances, the young candidate, buoyed by an unexpectedly strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, vowed to carry on his crusade. One year later, in January 2009, the candidate became president and set out to make good on his promises.
That Barack Obama possessed the ability to heal the nation and repair the world seemed in many quarters all but self-evident. As he donned the mantle of the ‘most powerful man in the world’, the expectations that had lifted him into the Oval Office qualified as nothing short of messianic. A dark and depressing interval of American history, symbolised by place names such as Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, was ending. A new era of hope had begun. Nothing seemed beyond reach. So at least many Americans believed.
In surprising numbers, observers further afield shared these happy expectations. For a brief moment, Obama’s rising star cast its light well beyond America itself. He was, or appeared to be, everyone’s president. As if speaking for all humanity, the Nobel Committee ratified this proposition, awarding its annual peace prize on an anticipatory basis, the recently inaugurated president not actually having done anything to promote peace. Obamamania was sweeping the planet.
Well, going on six years later, the fever has long since broken. In beleaguered, war-torn Syria, polio may be making an unwelcome comeback. But the infection that was Obamamania is gone for good.
As for the President himself, the verdict is in: when it comes to repairing and healing, no, he can’t. In retrospect, it’s hard to fathom why so many people succumbed to the illusion that he could.
In Washington, members of the commentariat have now essentially written off the Obama presidency. The astonishingly inept roll-out of the administration’s signature healthcare reform programme has fostered the image of a chief executive who is disengaged, lackadaisical and not fully in command — perhaps more interested in basketball or golf than in governing.
The ongoing intelligence scandal reinforces this impression. Did Obama know that the NSA was eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other allied leaders or not? To answer that question in the affirmative is to raise serious questions about the president’s judgement. To answer in the negative is to suggest that someone other than the putative commander-in-chief is at the helm of the world’s most powerful national security establishment.
Then there are the disappointments on the international scene, above all in the Islamic world. Remember the hopes raised by Obama’s Cairo speech of June 2009? Entitled ‘A New Beginning’, the speech offered a wide-ranging vision of reconciliation between civilisations and peoples long at odds with one another. In practical terms, that vision has yielded little of note. However necessary and even commendable, Obama’s principal foreign policy achievements — withdrawing US troops from Iraq and ‘getting’ Osama bin Laden — have paid few strategic dividends. Indeed, Iraq shows signs of unravelling while al-Qa’eda has shown a remarkable capacity for opening up new franchises. With regard to the events that are actually shaping the future of the region — revolutions, coups and uprisings along with various unhelpful actions by the government of Israel — the President has been more bystander than architect. The deafening applause that greeted Obama’s brief phone call to Iran’s President Rohani and the subsequent deal to kinda, sorta curb that country’s nuclear programme offer one measure of the diminished expectations that are now the administration’s signature. Look, they don’t always fumble!
Oh, and lest we forget: the prison at Guantánamo that Obama fervently vowed to close within a year remains open. Most of its detainees have still not been charged with any crime despite having spent up to 12 years behind bars and in solitary confinement.
Altogether, Obama’s record of achievement has to rate as modest. No wonder the cheers have turned to jeers. ‘When I hear a man applauded by the mob,’ H.L. Mencken observed, ‘I always feel a pang of pity for him. All he has to do to be hissed is to live long enough.’ Obama has lived long enough to make the journey from rock star to something between laughing stock and object of pity.
For their part, major American news outlets are moving on. Although Obama has not reached the midway point in his second term, attention has already turned to handicapping the 2016 presidential race. Reporters eagerly declare that New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former secretary of state/senator/first lady Hillary Clinton have the nominations of their respective parties all but locked up. The next contest to save America, thereby enabling America to save the world, is about to be joined.
Apart from its transient entertainment value, such journalistic speculation can be safely ignored — reporters might as well be trafficking in stock tips. Only in one sense does the here-comes-the-next-election hoopla matter: growing preoccupation with a contest three years in the future suggests that the very propensity that once elevated Obama to the status of demigod is now beginning to reassert itself. Obama himself may have turned out to be something of a dud, but the cult of presidential personality that has dominated American politics for decades now still persists. And that’s a problem.
In the United States, presidential elections serve as an as excuse to avoid serious thought. Since at least the election of John F. Kennedy, now more than half a century ago, winning the presidency has been a theatrical exercise. Image has mattered more than substance. The whole point of the exercise is to transform the party’s candidate into a character. The side that enjoys greater success in doing so — its character embodying, however briefly, the concerns and aspirations of enough voters to capture a majority in the electoral college — wins. Depicting the opposing party’s candidate as an unworthy and even villainous character also helps.
The inevitable result is to create inflated expectations of the victor as someone able to divine and redirect the very course of history. Each of the last three presidents — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, along with Obama himself — apparently persuaded himself that providence (in Bush’s case, God) had summoned him to do just that. Clinton fancied that he could employ the wonders of globalisation to Americanise the world. Launching his ‘Global War on Terrorism’ after 9/11, Bush vowed to expunge evil itself.
Yet steering history turns out to be a daunting enterprise. Regardless of whose hand is on the tiller, powerful undercurrents evade human control. The beginning of wisdom lies in understanding that the ‘most powerful man in the world’ is really not all that powerful. History’s determinants — beginning with the weight of the past itself — mock the absurd pretensions of presidents, their handlers and their acolytes.
So whether the issue falls in the realm of culture and religion (reconciling Islam with modernity) or of statecraft (reconciling Iranian security interests with those of Israel) or of political economy (reconciling America’s appetite for consumption with its depleted wallet), looking to the president to ‘fix the problem’ is to indulge in a vast delusion, inevitably leading to disappointment. Worse, it amounts to a collective abdication of responsibility on the part of citizens, who by now ought to know better. Americans, along with the rest of the world, would do well to ratchet down expectations of what any president is likely to accomplish. Doing so constitutes a necessary first step toward returning American politics to a more realistic plane, one where posturing takes a back seat to solving problems that can be solved and steering clear of those that can’t. Rather than promising world peace, for example, settle for balancing the budget.
Americans who don’t care for the trajectory their country has followed in recent years shouldn’t blame Obama. They should blame themselves. Those fancying that a President Christie or a second President Clinton will do any better obviously haven’t been paying attention and richly deserve what awaits them. After all, there was only one Messiah and even His attempts to heal and repair met with considerably less than complete success.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.