Monthly Archives: March 2016

Has Obama Been Successful?

A friend of mine asked me a question that I think about all of the time. With less than a year remaining in his presidency, now is the time to start answering the question: Has Obama been a successful president?

I’m going to use the scale of A+ to F-.
With A+ being highly successful; C being moderately successful; F- being an abject failure.

“Obama would much rather be remembered as an extraordinarily intelligent president than as a great president but only of moderate capabilities. I really believe that – and that’s a problem. Ultimately, Obama needs to be right even if he’s not successful.” claims Ian Bremmer, political risk analyst, in a recent interview on The Charlie Rose Show.

I begin this blog post that way because I, personally, believe that Obama will go down as probably the smartest president, person-for-person, we have ever had. I think Obama is brilliant, well-read, and eminently modern as hell. However, Obama’s brilliance hasn’t translated into all that much success and has sometimes been a handicap.

As a leader: C

I do not think that President Obama has been that much of an effective leader. Parsing through Obama’s numerous statements and one can easily see that he is aware that he has failed to bridge the partisan gap, for example. Others may blame Congress but Obama has often commented that he considers this to be his fault because it is his responsibility. On all sorts of different issues, the president has failed to make his case to the country, and to Congress, that we should pass bills that accomplish specific goals. Obama has called for jobs/construction bills; carbon taxes; for Congress to raise the minimum wage; and to “do something” about guns. Moreover, Obama says not being able to do something regarding guns is his “biggest frustration.” I blame Congress for many if not all of the misfires but Obama could have done more to make his case. As far as leading regarding foreign policy, President Obama has helped improve our countries image while simultaneously decreased our trustworthiness. Reviewing comments from world leaders has most of them admitting that they don’t trust America. Citizens respond more positively: a median 65% of poll respondents in over 40 countries have “confidence that Obama does the right thing,” according to a Pew Research study from June 2015. I honestly think it’s more important what leaders themselves think because Obama has to work with them directly.

I give the president a barely passing grade as a leader and this is not good. Not good at all. The more I learn about the importance of leadership in my personal travails; at work; and at university, I am realizing that leadership is critically important. Leaders set a precedent for their subordinates and their peers. Obama trusts only a few insiders and he rarely meets with Congress.

On foreign policy: B

Grading on a curve because the president inherited a disaster and he became captain of a ship who’s foreign policy for over 60 years has been one of hegemonic dominance through coercion aligned with notsoliberal partners. In the past our relationship with military dictatorships has blemished our image and tainted our values. Rendition. Torture. Mass-spying and mass-collection of data. Participation in military coups over democratically-elected leaders. Funding groups that we now consider terrorists who we found acceptable as long as they were battling the Soviet Union. I could go on and on. The history of American foreign policy has left Obama with few options. As a realist thinker myself, I don’t fault Obama for not taking radical steps when he didn’t. I do fault Obama for taking radical measures, however, like the intervention in Libya which has produced another state that is barely staying afloat. At least this intervention wasn’t unilateral and was sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), however

The “pivot to Asia;” the completion of the yet-to-pass Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP); the Iranian and Cuban rapprochements; and the Copenhagen climate agreement, the Obama administration have achieved some daunting and challenging successes.

I think Obama’s foreign policy moves have been sporadic and we do lack a strategy (There is an argument to be made that only China has a foreign and/or domestic strategy in the entire world.) Some of President Obama’s public comments have lacked self-awareness and lacked appreciation and patience of the average American’s views towards the state of the world. Overall, I am sympathetic to President Obama when it comes to foreign policy with a couple of massive caveats such as the proliferation of drone usage which surely will make the world much more volatile. I don’t know if any other president would have made any better decisions with the understanding that too much change in a short period of time can be quite risky. Obama has been a risk averse presidency and that is understandable.

On his campaign[s] promises: C-

Obama has kept, according to PolitiFact, less than half of his “promises” to the country. However, if you count the promises considered “compromises on…” as “kept” then that number looks better with Obama either keeping or compromising on his promises at 70%. I don’t have much to add here myself; politicians do tend to try and honor their spoken words while campaigning, contrary to what the American public seems to think.

On domestic policy: C

The presidency in the U.S.A. is a defensive position. Congress has the power of the purse and our judicial system gets the last word regarding the Constitution. Obama has offered a rather status-quo preserving budget throughout his presidency. That said, let’s review the lay of the land.

Civil rights issues such as gay marriage has progressed positively. Obama is on the record on supporting LGBT equality through the law. Climate change mitigation has been caught up in the courts but, programmatically, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A) has organized itself based on prevailing scientific understanding.

The military budget keeps growing, in dollar amount, and Obama hasn’t reigned in any abuses regarding civil liberties. Obama has also codified, supported and widened just what we call classified and secret; executive overreach to some; national security imperative to others.

Obama’s big two focuses in 2009-2010 were, first, rescuing the economy from the Great Recession and, second, passing comprehensive health care reform.

Official unemployment has dramatically improved from 7.6% in January 2009 to 4.9% in February 2016. However, income gains have mostly gone to the 1% while the average worker’s wages are stagnant. Money to help foreclosed Americans largely never came and the banks are now bigger – though arguably not as risky – than ever.

The average health care cost, per policy, has decreased. According to the Congressional Budget Office, as reported by The New York Times, “the cost of insuring people will be substantially lower than the budget agency expected when the law was passed. It now estimates that the cost will total $465 billion in 2016-19, which is 25 percent less than its original estimate.” Health care reform has had mixed results. Some Republican-led states are not making it any easier.

Race relations have worsened under Obama. I don’t blame Obama for this but it needs to be mentioned, at least. In fact, I attribute this on the history of white supremacy and the current response of millennial activists reminding white Americans of historical and contemporary problems. Passionate opinions have split the country and Trump and Sanders can largely be seen as Americans picking sides regarding identity politics.

Overall: C

I think President Obama has been moderately successful. I think history will judge him positively especially when we realize that this was the beginning of massive change due to mass empowerment/disruption tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and all sorts of globalized channels, institutions, and ideas. Could someone have done a better job than Obama in this polarized and partisan environment? I don’t know. We can’t know.

For all intents and purposes, I think Obama will go down historically as a good but not great president. Was he successful? At times and in some ways, yes. I rank President Obama as moderately successful.

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When Being Small is a Plus

In international relations, being powerful is, according to many realists, the only metric that matters. Forget your morals, ideals, strategies, etc, what actually matters is pure power. In Nye’s brilliant The Future of Power, he explains how things aren’t that simple.

There are ways that a smaller state, or power, can use its subservient position vis-à-vis a larger friend, actually can gain power or can use that position in the relationship to it’s advantage. While reading ForeignPolicy.com today, I was struck by an complimentary example – evidence – of this very idea: Chechnya.

In “The Chechen Gambit,” Tatia Lemondzhava, energy analyst from the World Bank, writes about how Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov is playing his subservient role to his advantage. Kadyrov in, perhaps, a performative public propaganda-dance announced that he will not run for re-election coming up when his term ends on April 5. The author writes that Kadyrov “has consistently used the political capital he has amassed since assuming office to bargain for dividends from the Kremlin.” You see, Lemondzhava’s point here is that Kadyrov doesn’t actually intend to step down. What he wants to happen is to force Russian president Vladimir Putin to go on-the-record and, essentially, beg and/or urge Kadyrov to reconsider.

This is a brilliant gambit.

Putin’s hands are tied because for the last decade or so he has relied on Kadyrov to maintain order in the Sunni North of Chechnya. The analyst reports that in a time of austerity, Kadyrov’s region is the sole region to receive more as opposed to less aid in the recent years. Kadyrov’s supporters planned on taking to the streets regarding his decision; they started a social media campaign, too. Kadyrov urged his supporters to be patient: Putin will come to the rescue, guys, trust me, is the implication.

“The largest state does not always win in the manipulation of economic interdependence,” writes Nye. Kadyrov’s move is equivalent to threatening retaliatory actions, in a way. It’s also an example of realpolitik, perhaps: is the alternative worse? Putin will most definitely answer with the affirmative: yes, indeed, this is why I will come out and urge Kadyrov to stay. This is not zero-sum, of course. Russian benefits by not having to deal with potential upheaval. Chechya retains it’s popular leader. Kadyrov gains even more prestige.

I encourage readers to read the whole article as it’s a fascinating example of how a lesser power who completely relies on a large power can use it’s seemingly subservient position to it’s advantage.