Humbled, embattled and living on borrowed political time, the waning American president will now seek a place in history somewhere between Iran and Iraq. Unseasonable snowflakes emerged last week in Illinois, Indiana and Vermont, staining New England’s foliage white and adding ice to Halloween’s spooky atmosphere.
The unusual weather soon proved a fitting setting for winter’s premature landing on the presidency of Barack Obama. What began six years ago as the political Cinderella tale of the century has given way to an epic tragedy, whose last act began this week with an electoral trouncing that is its supreme victim’s doing as much as it is his undoing.
Obama is not alone; Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford also lost midterm elections. Yet Clinton’s loss of Capitol Hill in 1994 was followed by six more years in power – years which, though marred by scandal, went down in memory as a time of prosperity at home and supremacy abroad. And Ford’s midterm loss in 1974 was not about his own performance – it had been barely two months since he replaced Richard Nixon – but that of his predecessor.
Clinton’s presidency had no sad ending, and Ford’s had no happy beginning.
Obama, by contrast, has just missed his last electoral train, and the happiness of his original victory now seems like an archeological relic.
The most anticlimactic presidency in US history has its protagonist’s name written all over his party’s loss this week of 288 congressional and gubernatorial races. One might expect such a spectacular debacle to be caused by some cataclysm – say, a military defeat, economic fiasco or poorly handled natural disaster. This has not been the case.
Instead, Obama’s loss of public favor was caused by a growing sense of American decline that the president seemed to deny, embody and accelerate.
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Imperial decline is never one leader’s fault, and Obama is no exception. Empires are undone by the burden of their overreach, as historian Paul Kennedy observed before the final fall of the Soviet Union.
Similarly, the relationship between the distant wars and the economic crisis Obama inherited from George W. Bush will be the subject of scholarly debate in future generations. Some will say the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq should never have been waged, others will say they should have been but one at a time; some will say their aims were unrealistic, others that their tactics were misguided – and all will ridicule their reckless financing.
There will be no arguing, however, that following last decade’s traumas, the American people needed a leader with a sense of history and an ability to act.
In his sudden rise to power, Obama aroused hopes he possessed both. In reality, he delivered neither.
The lack of historical sensitivity emerged already at his inauguration, when a euphoric Obama spent $50 million on balls, concerts and other victory celebrations – in utter disregard of Main Street’s sense of economic insecurity following the financial meltdown that was the very cause of his improbable victory.
The lack of effectiveness emerged as the healthcare saga unfolded, and the president asked Congress to prepare the plan he had failed to prepare himself. Both failures, the atmospheric and the practical, were the perfect opposites of Franklin D.
Roosevelt’s arrival in the White House during the Depression, when a brief and austere inauguration quickly gave way to the legislation and activation of previously prepared action plans.
ObamaCare, by contrast, took more than a full presidential term to pass, then proved administratively deficient and electorally irrelevant, if not counterproductive.
Finally, Obama’s historical insensitivity and political ineffectiveness coincided in the Middle East. Subsequent events now render his 2009 Cairo Speech a display of aloofness, second in its gullibility only to Vogue magazine’s celebration of Syria’s first lady as “a rose in the desert” and her husband’s household as “wildly democratic,” moments before he drowned “the safest country in the Middle East” in rivers of blood.
Obama’s failure to deliver on his televised threat to attack Syria should it use chemical weapons underscored suspicions that he was unfamiliar with the world he was expected to lead, and inattentive to the history he was assigned to reshape.
The confrontation in Ukraine further enhanced such impressions, as the White House again spoke endlessly while offering neither leadership nor impact – for the leadership was Europe’s, and the impact Russian President Vladimir Putin’s.
The new troubles in Iraq were the capstone of a confused foreign policy’s tragedy of errors, animating Washington’s loss of Cairo’s alliance and Riyadh’s trust. Nothing symbolizes the humbling of Obama more than his return these days to a stubbornly unreconstructed Middle East, where he has no choice but to fight a war which in many ways is but an extension of the two wars he had prided himself on ending.
The voters wouldn’t have minded all this, had it not stood in such stark contrast to the high rhetoric that preceded it. True, Americans appreciate a good speech, and their politicians are often good at delivering one. Yet Americans appreciate deeds more than words, and can’t stand it when words come at the expense of deeds.
This, then, is how Obama ended up where he finds himself today.
Where, then, does he go from here? Like french presidents in similar situations, Obama may seek a separation of duties – whereby the legislature focuses on the economy while the president focuses on foreign affairs.
This is what happened in 1986, when François Mitterrand lost the legislature to the conservatives and prime minister Jacques Chirac cut the taxes the president had raised and sold the companies the president had nationalized.
Mitterrand, at the same time, invested himself in unifying Europe. Similar dynamics unfolded when Chirac, as president, faced socialist premier Lionel Jospin, and before that when Mitterrand faced Edouard Balladur .
Yet Obama’s situation will be different, because his focus will be not on his political survival – but on his historical record.
There is very little time and only narrow maneuvering space left for Obama to treat his place in history, and this will first require defensive action on his part. In this regard, Obama will struggle to preserve his healthcare reform while Congress tries to dent, and maybe altogether undo, what Obama sees as his main accomplishment.
While reportedly resigned to shelving his original hopes to create new funding for things like pre-kindergarten tuition, Obama may win the Hill’s cooperation on issues like infrastructure, foreign trade and even taxation.
Still, there is nothing domestic that Obama can now make happen, and make the emblem of his legacy.
This is not the case on the diplomatic front.
One arena where Obama might theoretically be effective is Ukraine, but the way to do so is to call that conflict an internal European affair and steer clear of it. Like most American politicians, there is no chance Obama will do this, as the knee-jerk American reaction to that crisis is to think, wrongly, that it is the Cold War all over again.
The foreign arena where Obama will seek to have an impact is the Middle East.
Within the region, he has three conflicts to consider: Israel and the Palestinians; Iran and the rest of the Middle East; and Islamic State and the rest of the world.
On the Palestinian front Obama has already learned that he is no position to make history, having seen his administration’s brave effort to change local hearts yield little but the breaking of the heart of Secretary of State John Kerry.
On the Iranian front, Obama is in for a collision with the new Congress – whose agreement he must secure to lift American sanctions.
An attempt to back a deal in which the goods would be delivered by other nations sanctioning Iran, from Europe to the UN, may yield an agreement, but not a place in history – because a deal with Iran against the will of the American people will not stand. Instead, it will be exposed as a capitulation, with its architects recalled as Chamberlains.
This leaves us with Islamic State.
Here, the die has already been cast. Obama is already in that war, and will likely be drawn deeper into it with full Republican support. Here, somewhere between Baghdad and Nineveh, Obama may find his place in history, providing he finally musters the vision, prudence, poise and resolve that most voters thought his first six years in office lacked.
On this front, the war effort Obama is in the process of launching may generate true victory over a true enemy representing a real problem for the entire world.
Should that happen, the man who took to the podium in Cairo eager to appease the Muslim world, will end up etched in millions of Muslim minds as Enemy No. 1 – a humbled statesman as bewildered as a Halloween pumpkin at October’s snow.
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