Much commentary on Barack Obama’s presidency has focused on the shortcomings and missed opportunities, but it must be recalled how grim was his inheritance and fierce his opposition, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.
By Paul R. Pillar
Most of the end-of-presidency appraisals of Barack Obama’s performance in office have failed to capture the most important aspects of his presidency and what distinguishes it from others. This shortcoming is only partly due to the difficulty of making good judgments about such things without the perspective that only the passage of time can provide — although this difficulty is indeed a significant factor, as suggested by how much general opinion about some past presidents has changed over time.
Appraisals that are inclined to praise Mr. Obama, including ones coming from people associated with his administration, have often taken the form of laundry lists of accomplishments while doing little to capture the more general essence of his approach to public policy. One accomplishment in particular that probably has been invoked so often that the frequency of the invocation has been well out of proportion to its intrinsic significance is the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Appraisals inclined to be critical of Mr. Obama have been coming mainly from two different camps that on most issues disagree strongly with each other. One consists of those on the political right who have opposed President Obama all along and are simply extending their opposition into their retrospective commentary.
The other camp includes progressive realists who express disappointment that Mr. Obama did not do more than he did to extract the United States from wars, to curtail an overextended and overly interventionist foreign policy, and to move more boldly to shake loose from some other costly habits of what had become a Washington consensus. The criticism, from either or both of these camps, has exhibited three major deficiencies, among others.
One is to lose sight of what is practically and politically feasible, and to judge this president against some hypothetical ideal rather than against feasible alternatives. Presidents need to be graded on the curve, because hypothetical ideals are impossible standards for anyone to meet in the real world of political competition and policy-making. Populating the curve are presidents who come before and after, and alternative policies seriously offered — as distinct from vague expressions of dislike for the status quo — during the graded president’s own term.
Art of the Possible
Presidential politics, like other politics, is the art of the possible, and wise presidents pick which battles to wage and where they should allocate limited political resources. In this regard, a theme heard from both of the critical camps is that President Obama did not walk the walk as much as he talked the talk. Too many stated aspirations, in other words, and not enough follow-through accomplishment.
The important distinction that gets lost in this theme is between, on one hand, duplicity in stating objectives without any genuine intention of pursuing them and, on the other hand, laying out a direction and endeavoring to move the needle in that direction even if the president is unable to move it as far as many of his supporters would like. There is little or no evidence of the former in Mr. Obama’s pronouncements and policies; there is plenty of evidence of the latter, including those relating to avoiding costly and damaging overseas expeditions.
A second deficiency of the criticism is to lose sight of the fact that Mr. Obama inherited a miserable situation, at home and abroad, upon entering office — worse than that handed to any of the other several most recent presidents. This included the most severe recession since the Great Depression, one that reached its depth just about when Mr. Obama took the oath of office. It included the effects of the badly mistaken invasion of Iraq, with not only continuous civil war in Iraq itself but also the exacerbation of wider sectarian conflict and stimulation of terrorism, which fed directly into so many of the preoccupying foreign policy problems, especially in the Middle East, that demanded the Obama administration’s attention.
When one must devote most of one’s available strength and attention and political chips to dig out of deep holes, there is that much less left to make positive progress above ground. This sort of handicap needs to figure in a fair evaluation of any president.
A third deficiency is to give insufficient attention to the exceedingly inflexible and strident opposition Mr. Obama faced from the opposite party in Congress, which by his last two years in office included Republican control of both chambers. Again, this goes beyond what any other recent president has faced, although we began to see some of it as Newt Gingrich was converting political competition into ruthless warfare in the 1990s.
Failure to take into account the nature of the opposition has led to baseless charges against Mr. Obama for political dysfunction not of his own making. A self-described anti-Trump conservative, for example, blames Obama for the rise of Trump by saying it was “divisive” for the President to point out instances of the opposition putting party ahead of country — rather than such pointing out being a frank and accurate observation about the problem of divisiveness itself.
Other critics somehow have kept a straight face while adducing the absence of Republican votes in favor of the health care law as supposedly another instance of the President’s divisiveness, rather than this being an indication of the approach of the members who cast the votes.
Part of the background to this, of course, is that the legislation in question was not some Democratic scheme coming out of left field but instead a commercially-based system that was Romneycare before it became Obamacare. A similar situation arose with Congressional Republican refusal even to consider the nomination to the Supreme Court of a well-qualified moderate who could have easily been the nominee of either a Republican or a Democratic president seeking to bridge the gap across the aisle.
All presidents get both more credit and more blame for things that happen during their tenure, many of which are beyond the president’s control or ability to influence. This pattern is certainly prevalent in much of the end-of-term commentary about President Obama. Forgetting what is and is not in the president’s control often leads to misallocation of blame for things not being better. It also leads to loss of perspective regarding standards of success and failure as the situations that presidents must deal with change, for whatever reason, over time.
This is true, for example, of the health of the American economy during the long climb out of the Great Recession. Mr. Obama’s opponent in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, hammered away at the issue of unemployment. Romney promised that if elected he would lower the unemployment rate (then just over eight percent) to six percent, with the message being that this was better than a re-elected Obama would do. The rate as of last month was 4.7 percent.
In foreign policy, three qualities in particular of Mr. Obama’s policy-making stand out, more so than laundry lists, from what came before and what is coming after him, and from much of what opposed him while he was in office.
The first is rigor, thoroughness, and reliance on the best information in the making of policy. As mundane as this may sound, it should not be taken for granted. Astoundingly, the biggest and most consequential decision that Mr. Obama’s predecessor took during his eight years in office — the invasion of Iraq — was taken with no policy process at all to determine whether the invasion was a good idea. Some of the policy-making in the presidency before that (of Bill Clinton) was likened to disorganized graduate seminars.
Foreign Policy Subtleties
Second is the break away from the habitual rigid American Manicheanism that deals with the outside world almost exclusively in terms of friends and foes, purported allies and adversaries, good guys and bad guys, and in terms of coddling the one and confronting the other. President Obama has made significant departures from this misguided and unsuccessful rigidity and has taken steps toward a more flexible and effective foreign policy that recognizes the United States has fish to fry and interests to pursue with every other nation in the world.
Most notable in this regard have been the opening to Cuba and the multilateral agreement to restrict the Iranian nuclear program. Both of these achievements are significant in their own right in ending unsuccessful policies of nothing but confrontation, and they also represent a significant moving of a larger needle.
Third is the overall knowledge and insight that represents a better understanding of how the outside world works, and of the dynamics of conflict within it, than is too often exhibited by the Washington consensus against which Mr. Obama has had to struggle. One of the best pictures of the President’s understanding in this regard was his interview last year with Jeffrey Goldberg.
Two other qualities have distinguished Mr. Obama’s conduct as it relates to both foreign and domestic policy. One is a willingness to take political heat to keep the Republic from getting into trouble. He has not always been consistent in this regard. Mr. Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan, for example, was clearly shaped more by political considerations than by military effectiveness. But his decision to withstand much pressure from multiple directions to “do something” more about Syria has helped keep the United States from getting immersed any more deeply in yet another no-win misadventure.
Finally is Barack Obama’s personal conduct as president, marked by grace and fairness as well as by intelligence. Importantly and related to this, he has exhibited spotless personal integrity and the highest ethical standards — going so far, for example, as to seek a government legal ruling on whether it was permissible for him to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. He has led an eight-year administration with no significant scandals — again, not something to be taken for granted, given modern American history.
As of noon on Jan. 20, the nation is in for a severe turn away from most of the above. Regarding divisiveness, the incoming president has set a record for being the sorest winner ever, never getting out of what was already a highly combative and insult-filled campaign mode. Regarding reliance on good information, the new president rejects not only book-learning but also the assistance of government bureaucracies that exist for the purpose of informing policy decisions.
Regarding the method of decision-making, policy, at least declaratory policy, is as likely to be made with impulsive middle-of-the-night tweets as through any careful review. And as for ethics, the incoming chief executive is a walking bundle of conflicts of interests whose flouting of ethics principles has set so big and bad an example for others in his administration that the whole process of ethics scrutiny and elimination of conflicts of interests seems to be breaking down for senior nominees.
As previously mentioned, we need to grade presidents on the curve. The curve is taking an exceptionally sharp turn downward, and that ought to put Barack Obama in an even more favorable light.
Much of the wider public may be beginning to realize this, as indicated by recent poll results that have seen Mr. Obama’s job approval ratings rise significantly while Donald Trump’s ratings are probably the worst of any incoming president. Barack Obama will be missed.
Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)