Nigel Hamilton, a well-known British historian, recently published a book entitled “American Caesars: Lives of the US Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush” (2010). Hamilton, who is widely respected in academic circles for the durability and gravity of his historical works has attempted through this book to summarize the biographies of twelve US Presidents in the manner of Roman historian Suetonius (200 B.C), who chronicled the lives of twelve Roman Caesars. What distinguishes Hamilton’s book is that he has been able to portray the character of each president as he was seen by his critics, but also as the president in question saw himself.
President Obama is facing a similar challenge, but from the opposing angle. Obama’s presidential campaign has become one of the most important events in American history. The candidate introduced himself in an exemplary manner, with slogans bearing the hopes for change to America, and this message affected millions around the world. Obama has talents and capabilities that perhaps were lacking in a number of other US presidents; he created himself, and is an unparalleled American political success story to the extent that his autobiography has sold millions of copies and been translated into most modern languages.
However, this unique experience which brought Obama to the presidency has become a source of inconvenience to him and his top aides. It seems that the large halo that surrounds him has begun to demand more than he is capable of delivering, and so he has become unable to meet the aspirations and hopes placed in him. In other words the real world, with all its difficulties and complications, has imposed options and solutions upon the president that are all as unappealing as each other. During this year, the percentage of people dissatisfied with the president’s job performance rose from 20 percent (January 2010) to 40 percent (June 2010), according to a Rasmussen Presidential Poll. As for foreign policy, the director of the CIA announced in June that Iran possesses enough enriched uranium to produce two nuclear bombs, and he also indicated that the US administration has achieved little success against the Taliban since the beginning of the latest military campaign in Afghanistan.
President Obama, like other presidents and leaders, is not too concerned with the recent news or figures. Indeed his aides point out that the president has been able to achieve major goals in a short time period, most notably passing the health reform bill, which is something that former presidents were unable to do, in addition to signing the new “START” treaty with Russia to reduce nuclear arms. The US administration also succeeded in repairing relations with Russia and China, enabling a fourth round of sanctions to be imposed upon Tehran. Most importantly of all – according to Obama’s supporters – his peaceful proposals and his personal charisma has contributed to repairing the image of the US in many parts of the world. In an interview with the New York Times (13 April) White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that Obama was more pragmatic and realistic than others, and that at a time when US politicians are classified as either being “idealists” or “realists” that “if you had to put him [Obama] in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41’. But is Obama really Bush 41?
The answer is no. Obama can be pragmatic and realistic on certain policies, such as postponing the closure of Guantanamo Bay, extending the Patriot Act, or sending additional troops to Afghanistan. However, realpolitik requires pragmatic solutions, firmness against troublemakers and less moral preaching. The Obama administration’s performance on a number of issues has been weak, and Bibi Netanyahu has been able to outmaneuver Obama twice without the US administration being able to take the initiative. You can also say the same thing about Iran’s nuclear file which emerged from a weak sanctions package. As for the issue of improving America’s image, this is relative, as Obama’s critics say, with some pointing to the decline in the level of confidence in the US as evidence of this, for in a region like the Middle East levels of confidence in the US have stood at between 13 and 19 percent since the beginning of the current year (Gallup Polls).
This lackluster performance in the area of foreign policy does not compare to the years of Bush 41, where the triumvirate of Bush, Baker, and Scowcroft were successful in containing Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union; they were able to preach a new world order, and they were also capable of punishing those who strayed beyond the rules of the new game, such as the Saddam Hussein regime. As for Obama, his administration is suffering from a clear inability to fulfill its promises with regards to withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, or instigating the peace process in the Middle East. The administration is also suffering from a crisis of confidence with the government of Hamid Karzai; the Obama administration has also been unable to reconcile the Iraqi parties who are locked in a power struggle that is on the verge of exploding.
The historian Walter Russell Mead argues that Obama has been a conciliator since his Chicago days and that after assuming the presidency he tried to move in a centrist conciliatory direction domestically, but that because of a lack of foreign policy experience he has become sluggish and dependent upon his top aides, whilst external political situations require creative solutions (Foreign policy, January/February). Today Obama the centrist finds himself in a difficult position, as he is being opposed by the conservatives – who make up 40 percent of the American electorate – whilst the liberals – 20 percent of the electorate – have cut themselves off from him because of his centrism. Globally, the opponents and enemies of the US find themselves unable to comprehend the US messages that fluctuate between intrepidity and restraint. This is a position that does not inspire confidence in the ranks of friends, nor firmness in the face of adversaries.
Like other American Caesars, Obama is facing difficult challenges, but he still has some time, and the forthcoming mid-term elections could be the most prominent test of this policy struggle between idealism and realism.