Obama, one year on: So he's human. He made mistakes. But he got the important things right
BERLIN -- One year after taking office, President Obama's polls have plummeted, unemployment is at 10 percent, the loss of Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat endangers the administration's health care reforms, and Iran has rejected a deal that would allow it to enrich uranium abroad.
All of that is bad news. But this is not the catastrophic bursting of an Obama Bubble. It's the end of a hyperinflation of expectations. And about time, too. "The nation I'm most interested in building is our own," Obama said in his speech on Afghanistan last December. But his main focus was on domestic policy from the outset, as Americans had wanted. The economy, energy independence, banking, infrastructure, housing, jobs, education, health care, and tackling the effects of climate change, the status of immigrants, and social inequalities: Obama deserves credit for his courage in offering a complete and coherent diagnosis of the problems besetting the country. Nonetheless, even from Over Here in Europe, it is difficult not to conclude that the President and his team underrated the challenges of getting to yes on health care reform and other domestic policy issues: a fractious left wing of the Democratic Party, a wounded Republican Party, a deeply polarized and anxious electorate.
But when Obama took office, the world was on the brink of economic collapse, and could have taken America down with it. Obama's team (together with the Fed, and building on what the Bush administration had done) led the salvage work: rescuing banks, a $787 billion stimulus package, coordinating the reactions of the G-20, pushing for re-regulation of the international financial markets. A disaster was averted, and the recession was staved off -- not just in America. Against this grimly urgent economic backdrop, Obama's foreign policy achievements in his first year are actually remarkable. Shaking a bobby's hand outside 10 Downing Street, bowing to the Japanese emperor, assuring the Muslim world of America's respect: these were gracious gestures which did a great deal to reestablish his country's soft power in the world. His speeches re-set standards for public discourse about international affairs to a level of civility and seriousness not seen in a long time. Obama's policy of the outstretched hand stands for a doctrine that prefers cooperation over coercion in an increasingly multi-polar world -- not out of naÃ¯ve idealism, but because it husbands resources and asks others to do their share in responding to the world's challenges. It is also an astute opening move in a carefully-considered strategy. It morally disarms anti-Americanism. It undermines conspiracy theories cooked up by authoritarian elites afraid of their own citizens. It puts unresponsive leaders on the defensive.
And, yes, it provides legitimacy for moving beyond cooperation when that offer is rejected. As the President said in Oslo: "Yes, there will be engagement, there will be diplomacy, but there will be consequences when these things fail." It looks as though Iran might become the first test of the doctrine. Afghanistan, at any rate, proves that this President is not afraid to use hard power when he has to. Of course, Obama has made mistakes. Some of the issues he has tried to tackle may simply prove intractable even for an American president. But what matters is that he got some key things just right. Even with flaws revealed, he remains one of the most gifted politicians of our age. There are too few leaders of his stature “ in America or in Europe, for that matter €“ to indulge in the luxury of dismissing him now when so much of his work is still undone.
Constanze Stelzenmäller is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.