Defining a Presidency

President Obama has been in office just under two and a half years, and besides noting that  he is the first black President, there is little agreement on how to categorize his Presidency so far.

The right has always tried to belittle him.   First they claimed he couldn’t get anything done (sometimes asserting that he had never accomplished anything in life — an odd claim, given his career!), but then the 111th Congress passed health care and closed with a flurry of activity.  For better or worse Obama and the Democratic Congress accomplished a lot in two years, no one can accuse him of inactivity.   Then Obama was cast as a radical President, driving up the debt in order to pursue an agenda that ignores economic reality.

His foreign policy was criticized as ill thought out — he was supposedly snubbing allies and giving haven to adversaries.   These criticisms were ad hoc rather than systematic.   He might be criticized for being too friendly to the Saudis one day, then for jilting an important Saudi ally the next.   The message the Republicans tried to send: he’s in over his head.

The left has also been dismayed by Obama.   When the exuberance of electing a young charismatic President promising change wore off, Obama’s centrist pragmatism was a let down.   Where was the fighter to take on special interests, close Guantanamo, get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan and take us down a new path?   Even health care reform, passed by the slimmest of margins, didn’t satisfy the left — why wasn’t Obama out there shaking the bully pulpit and pushing for a single payer system or something more dramatic?  Rather than confronting the Republicans he was trying to deal with them, and in the eyes of the left, they were eating him alive.

The left also is dismayed by his foreign policy.  They note, accurately, that the Obama foreign policy is not that much different than the Bush foreign policy after 2007.    To many on the left Obama is a sell out, promising change to get elected and then governing in a way that serves the inside the beltway elite, just like President Bush before him.

The fact that these narratives about Obama’s Presidency are contradictory and all over the place reflect that his Presidency remains undefined.    He has far more accomplishments than Bill Clinton did at this point in his tenure, and remains more popular than Ronald Reagan was two and a half years in.   But there is still uncertainty — who is Barack Obama really?   What kind of President is he?

This week President Obama went a long ways towards etching out his own definition.   In releasing his birth certificate, and subsequently subjecting Donald Trump to considerable ridicule, he grabbed the high road and was able to speak about the birthers as being petty political opportunists, playing games when real issues are at stake.   Then with the killing of Osama Bin Laden in a risky and bold raid, he threw off the narrative of him as the vacillater in chief, unable to make a clear decision.

The President could have chosen a safer option of obliterating the region with bombs, thereby avoiding questions of whether it was a “legal assassination.”    He undertook an operation that very easily could have gone bad, and not only trusted the military, but took full responsibility.   For most Americans who haven’t been following the competing Obama narratives, where dissatisfaction on the left and hostility from the right have seemed to pin Obama into an uncomfortable corner, this is the first real glimpse of Obama as a leader.   He comes off as not only Presidential, but firm, resolute and certainly not naive.

Suddenly those who tried to belittle Obama as being a horrible leader, just a ‘community organizer,’ look as petty as Trump touting the birther issue.  That’s gossip politics, ad hominems designed for overt political purposes.   You can dislike Obama’s health care reform, think he’s wrong on the budget and blame him for the economy, but a gutless deer with his eyes caught in the headlights he is not.

Moreover, Obama’s putting his stamp on foreign policy.  He has shifted US emphasis away from Europe and towards the Mideast and Asia.    His move of Panetta to Defense and Petraeus to the CIA also illustrate the way in which defense policy is increasingly interdependent with intelligence.    As major war becomes less likely, smaller operations become more of a focus.   This isn’t a new idea — Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was headed the same direction.   The mix of shifting emphasis from Europe to the Mideast and Asia along with a rethinking of the core structure and strategy of the military suggests a new security policy identity.

One can see the outlines of a true foreign policy legacy, though still in its nascent stages.   Obama has the chance to conclude the original ‘war on terror,’ and implement a new defense identity built on counter-terrorism and a meshing of military and intelligence capacities in order to deal with 21st century threats.   That, combined with a shift of emphasis away from Europe would create an entirely new foreign policy, though arguably one more in line with the realities of the new century.  This also isn’t an abrupt break from the Bush policy; rather, the neo-conservative bravado has been replaced by a more diplomatic touch — but even President Bush shifted tone after 2006.  This suggests that for all the discontent, we’re likely seeing the development of what will become a new bipartisan foreign policy consensus.

Of course, President Obama’s ultimate legacy will depend greatly on the economy and whether or not Americans are in a more hopeful and optimistic mood a year and a half from now.  Still, I would not be surprised if the Bin Laden killing is seen as a focal point in shaping the Obama Presidency.   In a real sense Obama has retaken control of the capacity define his own Presidency and not have it be trapped by competing political narratives.   The young President new on the job and perhaps overly cautious now appears Presidential and a real leader.

To parlay this into longer term political success and a second term he has to expand that leadership to the economic realm and show results there as well.   And, as hard as it was to get Bin Laden, the task of turning around an economy is far more complex and subject to unexpected difficulties.  Still, last week was a very good week for President Obama.

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