The US President is one of the most effective statesmen in modern American historyby Sam Tanenhaus / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
As the seventh year of his presidency approaches, Barack Obama remains the most elusive figure in American politics. The contradictory signals he sends—of engagement and detachment, of passion and “cool,” of resolve and uncertainty—seem less mixed than self-obliterating. The presumed ditherer of late August—“We don’t have a strategy yet” for combatting Islamic State (the philosopher AC Grayling discusses this on p20)—stiffened, three weeks later, into a George W Bush-like “decider,” as he mobilised a sizeable alliance and ordered airstrikes in both Syria and Iraq. As the Washington Post reported, it was the start of “a military engagement that he acknowledged is likely to far outlive his time in office.” When pressed to concede, on the television programme 60 Minutes, that most of the actual fighting will be done by American forces, Obama brusquely cut the interviewer off. “America leads,” he said. “We are the indispensable nation”—the notorious coinage by Bill Clinton’s UN Ambassador (and later Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright in 1996, adopted since by Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ most prominent hawk.
The irony was inescapable and, for his critics, a final indictment of Obama, or what he has become. To detractors on the left, Obama’s principles, if he ever had them, vanished long ago. Draping himself in the mantle of Bush’s war in Iraq—a war Obama forcefully opposed in 2002—is only the latest in a long list of cynical political moves. It includes the detainees still languishing in Guantánamo (Obama promised to shut the facility), increased drone attacks, secret campaigns in Somalia and Yemen, an attack on Syria and enlargement of the “surveillance state,” with its electronic dragnet flung over the citizenry.
To many entranced by him in 2008, Obama’s domestic policy has been no less disappointing. His economic advisors colluded with Wall Street while Obama himself bent to the Republican demand for reducing the public debt at the expense of jobless millions. Even his signal achievement in office, the Affordable Care Act, has failed to impress opponents on the left. As one such critic, Roger Hodge, wrote in his book The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism,
Obamacare is a “Republican healthcare plan that does little more than tinker around the edges of the current failed system.”