Presidential Performance Camelot's Last Act

Barack Obama embodied America’s hope of a better world until unrealistic expectations met with harsh reality. Handelsblatt's Washington correspondent argues that the U.S. president has only himself to blame.
In Germany, Barack Obama's presidency is seen as a failure by some.

Barack Obama is well into the autumn of his presidency as he steps before a firing squad of television cameras on a late evening in November.

He speaks of the grand jury's decision in Ferguson, Missouri, and the continuing burden of America’s legacy of racism. An hour earlier, the jury panel had announced that a white policeman would not face trial for shooting and killing an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, during an altercation.

Mr. Obama knows there will be outrage across the land, but urges restraint: “We are a nation founded on the rule of law.” Television broadcasters split their coverage of Mr. Obama with live scenes of violence, rage and destruction in Ferguson as a group of angry black residents go on a rampage. It’s an impression that sticks: Mr. Obama can no longer reach his citizens. His appeal for calm goes unheard.

Such moments are increasingly common for the U.S. president.

Americans have lost faith in the smooth talker in the White House, which is why Mr. Obama’s Democrats were trounced in recent congressional elections.

When the Islamic State butchers appeared in Iraq and Syria to declare war against the civilized world, shocking America with the barbaric execution of the journalist James Foley, Mr. Obama told the press corps in Washington weakly: “We still don’t have a strategy.”

When the National Security Agency scandal exposed the United States to be a dubious Big Brother surveillance state, the civil rights law professor Mr. Obama lacked the will to do anything about it.

It’s the same with his inability to shut down Guantanamo and U.S. intelligence's questionable behavior in the so-called war on terror. And a record number of drone assassinations against al-Qaida militants in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan have tarnished forever the image of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

When voters punished the president a few weeks ago in midterm elections by handing the U.S. Senate to Republicans, giving his adversaries complete control of Congress, Mr. Obama responded with defiance rather than statesmanship.

The one-time embodiment of hope and change has become distant to the American people. Mr. Obama isn't yet as irrelevant as was his predecessor, George W. Bush, at the height of the financial crisis – but he’s on his way. He has two years left in office and seems prepared to exhaust all constitutional discretion to thwart a hostile Congress. He will try to shape the nation’s agenda: Here a decree against climate change, there an executive order for a more liberal immigration policy, and perhaps some small tinkering against the country’s widening social divisions. But there will be no grand vision in the seventh and eight years of his presidency.

Americans have lost faith in the smooth talker in the White House, which is why Mr. Obama’s Democrats were trounced in recent congressional elections.

President Obama, measured against all the unrealistic hopes placed upon him as he took office, but also against his own expectations, has failed.

How could Barack Obama, the celebrated political superstar, be so reduced to a flaccid image on a TV screen? Does he face the same fate as George W. Bush, who wanted to bring freedom to the world, but ended up drifting through the halls of power like a ghost?

It was Mr. Obama’s own overestimation of himself that both America and the rest of the world lapped up – and even won him the Nobel Peace Prize – that has come back to haunt him. It continues to distort his public image and overshadows his true achievements.


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Mr. Bush left Mr. Obama an economically drained and demoralized land, financially ruined and morally bankrupt. Much has improved since then. The scars of the financial crisis and the Great Recession are slowly healing. The economy grew in the past half year faster than in the past eight years. Consumers are finally regaining confidence and unemployment is dropping. Wall Street banks are as big as ever and the stock market is notching all-time highs.

Domestic energy production is booming and freedom from imported oil is no longer a distant dream, but a reality.

Mr. Obama stopped America’s economic freefall with a stimulus program and forced the nation’s auto industry into a needed overhaul. He sharpened supervision of the financial sector and passed a heath care reform that – despite its flaws – deserves to be called historic.

However, much of the economic upswing can be attributed to the U.S. Federal Reserve’s extremely loose monetary policy in recent years. Like giving a junkie drugs, the Fed has continued to supply the economy with fresh money. That had the welcome short-term benefit of sparking growth, but it’s unclear how long it will continue and whether the Fed can ever forego cheap money without strangling the economy.


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And so the oppressive feeling remains of a missed chance. There will be no “new foundation for growth” as promised.

Disillusionment has become the prevailing mood in the Obama era.

Americans have lost faith in the smooth talker in the White House, which is why Mr. Obama’s Democrats were trounced in recent congressional elections.

The extent of their disappointment is easy to measure: Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have dropped below 40 percent – to dismal George W. Bush levels. The picture isn’t much better abroad for the once beloved U.S. leader: Nowhere has the disenchantment been so great as in Germany, where affinity for the United States has dropped 13 percentage points between 2009 and 2014, according to a survey.


Quelle: dpa
Change meets reality. Barack Obama's struggle to make a difference.
(Source: dpa)


Of course, image matters little at the end of the day.

But there has unfortunately also been very little substance to Mr. Obama’s presidency. Whether in Europe, the Middle East or Asia: America’s allies lament a lack of a coherent foreign policy in the White House. Even when there is a clear strategy on issues, ambiguity and uncertainty seems to prevail.

Everything was so clear when he took office in 2008: Mr. Obama wanted to free America from its military entanglements, use diplomacy over force, restart relations with Russia and the Arab world. It was the antidote to the gung-ho interventionism of his predecessor, Mr. Bush.

Avoiding foreign conflicts was meant to free resources for what Mr. Obama called “nation building at home.”

But the lot of many Americans hasn’t improved under Mr. Obama. Wages are stagnating as the cost of a decent education rises. The squeezed middle class, the foundation of American post-war society, has seen its standard of living deteriorate.

Only the ultra rich have profited from the nation’s growing prosperity in recent years. Mr. Obama called U.S. society’s increasing inequality a “main challenge of our time,” but despite his presidential powers, he’s managed to do little to change it.

The expectations were grotesquely high when he took office, but that’s irrelevant now. What remains is disappointment that Mr. Obama might be a gifted speaker, but a mediocre leader.

He drastically underestimated the opposition he would face in Washington. The Republicans refused to fall for his charms, opting to follow a highly destructive policy of unyielding confrontation, shutting down the federal government and twice nearly causing the United States to default on its debt.

America is deeply polarized, worse even than in 2008. Republicans and Democrats view each other as enemies rather than political opponents. The country is disintegrating into sealed-off areas controlled by each party.

Only the ultra rich have profited from the nation’s growing prosperity in recent years. Mr. Obama called U.S. society’s increasing inequality a “main challenge of our time,” but despite his presidential powers, he’s managed to do little to change it.

The younger and more diverse lean to the Democrats, as the whiter and older support the Republicans. For conservatives, Mr. Obama is a beloved hate figure. The right-wing populist Tea Party backers call him a liar and a tyrant, when not accusing him of high treason.

Undoubtedly, the Republican strategy of total opposition has been used to sabotage Mr. Obama’s agenda at every turn. And the U.S. political system, with its myriad institutional barriers, certainly makes pushing through difficult reforms extremely difficult. But it’s also true that the president rarely tried to open a dialogue with his opponents, to woo moderate Republicans and forge cooperation between the Senate and House of Representatives.

Mr. Obama has been a loner since his youth, with a tendency for self-isolation he still demonstrates today.

As divided as America is domestically, U.S. foreign policy under Mr Obama isn't all that helpful either. The only thing worse than having no answer to the civil war in Syria is America’s utter failure in Iraq. After Mr. Bush’s disastrous invasion, came Mr. Obama’s order of a hasty troop withdrawal – against the advice of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Central Intelligence Director Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and almost all of his top military brass.

Mr. Obama’s approach to the rise of the Islamic State has been marked by wishful thinking from the start. Because he refuses to deploy ground troops to fight the Islamist terror militia, it’s unclear how to dislodge them from larger cities such as Mosul. The Iraqi army is hopelessly incapable of doing so on its own – even when being coached by U.S. military advisors.

There is also an unmistakable lack of strategy in dealing with Russia. Ask a European diplomat stationed in Washington how the U.S. government hopes to solve the crisis in Ukraine and you’ll hear the stunning response: “Obama doesn’t have a Russia policy.”

The president only knows what he doesn’t want: He doesn’t want to supply weapons and start a proxy war with the Russian army, nor does he want to let the Russians redraw eastern Europe’s borders. Mr. Obama therefore only has hope: He hopes the sanctions will bite; he hopes Vladimir Putin will cave. His greatest hope, however, that of a world free of nuclear weapons, he has abandoned. The mutually assured destruction deterrence of the Cold War has returned.

Policy experts don’t have much say in the White House – and that’s the problem. International crises are analyzed through a partisan prism. The hasty withdrawal of troops from Iraq seemed like a sensible thing to do because it was thought to be popular among Democratic voters.

Last Wednesday, during the annual presidential pardon of a turkey before the Thanksgiving holiday, Mr. Obama joked for the TV cameras: “I am here to announce what I'm sure will be the most talked about executive action this month. Some will call it an amnesty.”

The president enjoys poking fun at Republicans, who slammed his decision to help some 5 million illegal immigrants stay in the United States. Some conservatives claim the humanitarian measure is unconstitutional and hotheads in the Tea Party are doing their best to roll back the “amnesty” and deport Mr. Obama with the immigrants.

He realizes he will never heal the country’s partisan divide and that knowledge seems to have given him some solace, even courage. Since his defeat in the midterm elections, Mr. Obama has appeared liberated. Visiting China, he promptly forged a long-elusive climate protection agreement with Beijing. He is also still pushing for a nuclear deal with Iran in the face of bitter opposition from his own Congress, writing a letter to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

And despite all the criticism, all the disappointment, regardless of the self-isolation and miserable approval ratings – it could be worse. America has a president fighting against his fate, refusing to go into the history books as a tragic figure like George W. Bush.

The New Yorker magazine summed up the situation with fine irony: “If only all presidents could fail like Obama.”


Moritz Koch is Handelsblatt’s Washington correspondent. To contact the author: [email protected]