Why Has Obama Been More Successful Abroad Than at Home? Three Words: No GOP Obstructionism

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Robert Brent Toplin, Professor of History (retired), University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published several books on history, politics, and film, and he operates a website, www.politicsoftheusa.com.

When voters evaluate Barack Obama’s leadership during the 2012 presidential campaign, much of their attention will be focused on the economy. Yet Obama’s ability to act in that realm became quite limited after Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy in January 2010, which denied Democrats the votes they needed to overcome GOP filibusters. Obama’s grip on economic policy weakened further when Republicans swept the Congressional races in November of 2010. President Obama has seen his control over economic policymaking severely weakened over the past two years. A more revealing measure of his leadership may be obtained by looking at international affairs, where Republicans lacked the authority to block the president’s moves.

When dealing with the economy, Obama has experienced both success and frustration. His 2009 stimulus plan saved thousands of jobs and helped to end the economic meltdown. The administration performed a successful rescue of America’s auto industry. General Motors and Chrysler rebounded quickly, and today all of the Big Three automakers are in the black. In 2010 and 2011, however, some of the administration’s Keynesian-style stimuli were phasing out. International troubles shook the U.S. economy, too, like Japan’s tsunami-produced downturn in factory production and the drawn-out sovereign debt crisis in Europe.

GOP legislators also tried to check Obama’s stimulus plans. Republican congressmen insisted on austerity at a time when many economists believed it was too early to turn on the fiscal brakes. GOP congressmen threatened to shut down the government in a fight over raising the debt ceiling, and they rejected the president’s plea for a “grand bargain” that aimed to reduce the federal deficit by over $4 trillion in ten years. Obama won a few small victories, such as a temporary extension of the payroll tax break, and recently he received good news: many U.S. corporations have been earning robust profits, and unemployment has dropped significantly. 

Nevertheless, despite some recent signs of progress, critics are blaming Obama and his administration for the lingering economic problems. But research demonstrates that recovery from ordinary recessions takes a considerable amount of time. Recovery from a whopper like the crash of 2007-2009, the biggest financial crackup since the Great Depression, is likely to take much longer than in typical downturns.

In This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, economists Carmen M. Reinhardt and Kenneth Rogoff studied hundreds of financial crises over history and found that societies usually face several years of difficulties in the wake of major economic shakedowns. Recovery in the housing market requires about six years after the bursting of a bubble. Since the collapse in America’s real estate market played a major role in the country’s recent crash, a comeback in housing seems likely to involve more than the six-year average. Ordinarily unemployment remains severe for almost five years, Reinhardt and Rogoff report. In view of the severity of the shakedown in 2007-2009, a return to low unemployment will likely require more than the five-year average.

Defenders of the Obama administration point out, then, that the challenges are enormous, yet some real progress has been accomplished on the economic front in just three years. During the election battles, Democratsmwill remind voters that the stock market was in the dumps when Barack Obama entered the White House in January 2009, and jobs were quickly disappearing.

Still, it is difficult to evaluate the Obama administration’s impact on the economy. The president and the Democrats had only a year to muster enough votes for semi-bold legislation such as the stimulus bill, the Affordable Care Act (health insurance reform),and the Dodd-Frank bill, which aimed to reform practices in the financial sector. During the past two years, the administration has faced powerful opposition in Congress. It has struggled to push through just a few popular pieces of legislation.

In foreign policy, however, Obama has been able to operate with much greater freedom of movement. The Constitution and political tradition give the Chief Executive much greater authority in dealing with problems beyond the nation’s borders. In that realm the GOP has not been able to do much to obstruct the president’s actions. A look at Obama’s handling of international affairs provides, then, a different measure of his leadership.
Listening to the Republican presidential contenders, one would think that Obama has been an abject failure in responding to global problems. Mitt Romney, as well as other Republican presidential candidates, calls Obama an appeaser. They claim Obama has been too eager to apologize for America. These are unsubstantiated, even ridiculous charges. By resorting to them, GOP candidates show they do not have much ammunition at hand to fire against the President’s foreign policy.
Overall, Barack Obama has been remarkably successful on the international front.
When Obama took office in January 2009, the United States was bogged down with huge military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Americans were aching for disengagement, but it was difficult to arrange a pullout with the political situation in Washington. Yet Obama managed to reduce American forces in Iraq from more than 140,000 in 2009 to zero by the end of 2011. The president supported a troop buildup in Afghanistan to secure U.S. and Afghan control of key areas and pressure the Taliban to negotiate. Now, after a decade of war-making in Afghanistan, the U.S. plans to pull back from major combat operations by the middle of 2013.

Disengagement from these troubled countries seemed extremely difficult when Obama took office, but it now appears within reach (and, in Iraq’s case, has reached actuality).

At the time of Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, Americans still feared Al Qaeda. But in the past three years, the United States has succeeded in eliminating many of Al Qaeda’s top commanders, and of course Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden. Terrorism remains a threat, but Americans are more confident today about their government’s defense against it.

Officials in the Bush administration often bragged about their toughness when it came to terrorism. Obama’s administration, borrowing from Teddy Roosevelt, spoke softly and carried a big stick (with which they proceeded to whack Al Qaeda).

During the period when Libyans were rising up against their longtime dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, lots of Republicans criticized the president. Some blamed Obama for interfering in Libyan affairs. They did not want the U.S. to become involved in yet another war in the greater Middle East. Others blasted the president for “leading from behind.” Those hawks sought more direct U.S. military support for the Libyan rebels’ military operations.

Obama offered a cautious and wise approach. He encouraged international backing of the rebels, including input from the nations of the Middle East. That policy worked splendidly. Qaddafi’s government eventually fell. Libyans felt empowered; they had a major stake in the achievement of freedom. The United States won praise for its diplomacy and its cooperative military support.
And perhaps most fortunately, the U.S. did not excite global outrage for “invading” or “occupying” a troubled nation, as in the case of intervention in Iraq.

Obama’s handling of the Libyan uprising demonstrated the benefits of multilateral engagement. The U.S. worked in concert with other nations and won acclaim for that effort.

American standing in the world has remarkably improved over the past three years. When Barack Obama began his presidency, the U.S. was overextended militarily.  Costly foreign commitments were draining the Treasury. Now the United States is planning to reduce its military involvement abroad and concentrate on core missions. The nation is pulling back, yet America’s power and prestige appear more impressive now than in early 2009. After eight years of highly controversial actions by the previous administration, once again citizens and leaders around the world admire the United States and its president.

Of course, Barack Obama has not established a perfect record in international affairs during his first three years in the White House. He has not been able to reduce Israeli-Palestinian tensions significantly (of course, no recent president has enjoyed much success when dealing with that particular situation). His efforts to build international pressure against the Iranians’ nuclear program remain a work in progress. Generally, though, Obama has achieved considerable success abroad during his first term.

Without Republican obstructionism, Obama has proven himself to be a competent leader. In global affairs, at least, Obama has been able to strut his stuff.

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