Despite numerous claims within the American political and expert community that Barack Obama has been a weak president, this is not really the case. In eight years in office, Obama proved to be strong, decisive and, most importantly, consistent.
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives for a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at Maximos Mansion in Athens, Nov. 15, 2016. Photo: Pool Photo via AP
In the last stage of their presidency, outgoing American presidents increasingly become “lame ducks” – most of the media attention is concentrated on the electoral struggles of those seeking to replace them, and then, after the election, on the personality and future political plans of the president-elect.
The circus-like atmosphere of the current campaign and the unusual figure of the newly elected 45th President of the United States Donald Trump have further overshadowed the figure and legacy of Barack Obama. This week the current president returned from his last official trip to Europe. For him, it represents a good opportunity to both attract public attention and to look back on the achievements of his foreign policy activity, trying to define his place in history.
Meanwhile, both the personality and the political heritage of the outgoing president are historically unprecedented – the first African-American head of state also has a very unusual previous personal and political history – his earlier experience included no executive power track, just two years in the U.S. Senate, some time spent in the Illinois state legislature, and work with various non-profit organizations. In this sense, there are some visible parallels between the outgoing and the incoming presidents — Trump, while creating and leading a major business giant, has never held any political posts.
Is this a good or bad thing? The answer is not that simple, because “experience” can also mean an adherence to stereotypes or confirmed principles, as was the case with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. This gave Senator Bernie Sanders, her opponent during the Democratic party primaries, an opportunity to note sarcastically on many occasions that “experience, of course, is good, but judgment also matters.”
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Why Obama is not a weak president
In Obama’s case, his multiracial and multicultural backgrounds were also significant and, especially, his childhood experience of living outside the U.S., in Indonesia, in an environment that was very different both religiously and culturally.
One feature of Obama’s personal style that often misleads observers is the fact that, in contrast to many of his predecessors, he never proclaimed an Obama Doctrine, never gave an elaborate description of his foreign policy concept and goals. If he disagreed with a long established official policy, instead of openly disagreeing with it, he dragged his feet, preventing the country from what he perceived as moving in the wrong direction.
This peculiarity has given many observers an impression of him as a weak and indecisive leader. In reality, on many occasions, as happened with the adoption of the radical and controversial healthcare reform and the presidential executive orders in regard to migration policies on the home front, Obama has shown himself as a person who is ready to be both decisive and quite aggressive in promoting his goals.
In this sense, contrary to the currently popular stereotype, he may turn out to be one of the most consequential presidents in American history. Among the examples of Obama’s decisive foreign policy steps are the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the “nuclear deal” with Iran, and the quiet policies aimed at the establishment of a new political balance in the Middle East through the revision of U.S. relations with Israel, the conservative Sunni Arab regimes and Iran.
While the first of these decisions will definitely stay, Trump has already promised to withdraw from the agreement with Iran. The destiny of the third one, based on a model of “an enemy of my enemy is my friend,” is not clear yet. The idea that Shia Iran might be an ally in the struggle against Sunni extremism and both Israel and the conservative Sunni regimes need to get the message that American help is not always guaranteed anymore is pretty controversial. It is a sort of geopolitical gamble in terms of its political consequences.
Obama’s Middle East policies have also shown his reluctance to send in ground troops and let the U.S. get fully involved in the bloody conflicts in Libya and Syria — even after his infamous statement in 2012 that the use by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” – contrary to the wishes of Clinton and like-minded politicians.
Still, these decisions played a crucial role in the formation of the image of a “weak Obama.” In reality, these episodes have shown the president’s willingness to go against public opinion and the wishes of very influential political groups. The same could be said about his early decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq – a decision for which he has been sharply criticized by Trump and many conservatives.
Obama’s policy toward Russia, China and immigration
Serious disagreements exist in regard to Obama’s policies towards Russia. He was quite willing to stabilize the bilateral relations at the start of his first term, right after the conflict in Georgia, when he proposed a policy of “resetting” these relations.
In 2011, Obama and Medvedev signed the START 3 Treaty. Still, simultaneously the expansion of NATO and the EU continued, and then tensions over Syria escalated and the crisis in Ukraine started, leading to the worsening of relations and the introduction of economic and political sanctions against Russia.
All this has led to the formation of a very negative image of Obama in Russia. Probably, this is not completely fair, and under the circumstances, these relations could have been much worse now under another leader, be it Clinton or somebody else.
Another area that has seen a steady worsening of U.S. bilateral relations during Obama’s tenure is the relationship with China. And here, indeed, the criticism that Obama has not been able to develop a long-term strategy in regard to this great power and the claims that his policies have been sporadic and purely tactical could be quite valid.
Obama has developed, but was has not been able to pass through Congress a comprehensive immigration reform – and even though he has implemented some of the planned policies through executive orders, this does represent a major failure (such executive orders can be recalled by a new president at any moment).
It should be noted, however, that in the cases of both China and immigration, Obama is not alone – all four post-Cold War presidents were unable to achieve success in these strategically important areas (the last successful immigration reform, for example, was implemented in 1986, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan).
Finally, Obama has been quite consistent in promoting his policies of expanding globalization in the economic and environmental spheres – in the first of those, receiving strong bilateral support from “establishment” politicians, in the second – from his Democratic colleagues.
He thus leaves quite an interesting and complex legacy in the foreign policy arena — and overall, one that includes many decisive revisions of U.S. foreign policy.
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Lessons from Obama’s presidency
So what are the lessons of the Obama presidency and what can we expect from the newly elected President Trump in this regard? First of all, under the specific conditions of the U.S. presidential system, the absence of previous political and, specifically, foreign policy experience might in some cases be an advantage, allowing Trump to ignore political stereotypes and look for unusual creative solutions.
Second, the way the elites present and the public perceives presidents during their tenure can be drastically different from the way they will be perceived a generation later — it would be useful to remember here Harry Truman, who developed a comprehensive Cold War containment system, but was perceived as a very weak figure by his contemporaries. And finally, the political establishment always looks down at outsiders and actively works to discredit them.
What to expect from Trump
What could that mean in regard to Trump? First of all, it is clear already that his actions are much less radical than his original statements. For example, Trump has already scaled down his proposals for building a wall on the border with Mexico and deporting 11 million illegal immigrants. He is now talking about deporting about three million illegals with a criminal record. Meanwhile, Obama during his two terms has deported about 2.5 million. It is quite possible that this Trump plan will be scaled down as well.
Secondly, Trump has not turned out to be as impulsive or vindictive as many pundits expected originally, meeting soon after the elections with many of those who opposed (and attacked) him in the most vicious way – it would be enough to mention here Republicans Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz. Most probably, he will be more cooperative on the international plane as well.
Thus the danger seems to come not as much from Trump himself as from external hostile state and non-state actors and the most uncompromising representatives of the political opposition and the members of the elites within the country. All these groups will be united in their desire to sabotage Trump’s policies and destabilize the situation in general. Thus possible are attempts to block his proposals in Congress, organize civil disobedience campaigns simultaneously with the escalation of hostile activities by the external actors – both within and outside the country.
Clearly, Trump will be much more skeptical than both his predecessors and his current opponents about the development of new regional integrative groupings with U.S. participation and might insist on revising existing agreements. His economic isolationism may increase instability in the world economy and aggravate Washington’s relations with the world’s leading economic powers. Of special importance in this regard will be his policy towards China. Still, the developments of the last week indicate that the business community is currently showing surprisingly faith in Trump’s economic leadership.
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No less important will be his attitude towards the existing environmental and human rights regimes – if nothing changes, it may lead to their significant weakening worldwide.
Also unpredictable for now is the level of Trump’s willingness to follow up on his promises to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran.
Still, on a number of issues – the future of NATO, the general shift of the center of world power from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the Middle East conflict, relations with Russia and China – Trump has shown his ability to think strategically and to move away from Cold War stereotypes – here his realist, business-like approach can be invaluable.
At the same time, Trump is known as a shrewd and tough negotiator – while willing to revise foreign policy priorities, he will definitely aggressively pursue the national interest the way he understands it, offering others deals and “carrots,” but quite willing to quickly turn to “sticks” if his offers are not taken. Thus only time will tell what impact his election will have on both U.S.-Russian relations and the political situation worldwide.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.