Four years ago when Barack Obama was running for president, he promised to lead with a radically different philosophy than former President George W. Bush. Obama gave speeches in Europe and the Middle East pledging a new approach to foreign policy. His campaign events in the United States drew huge crowds and inspired a movement of young people who were looking for a change after eight years of the Bush administration.
Obama vowed to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, ease relations with Cuba, and overhaul the nation’s health care and education systems. In 2009, the President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a move inspired by his perceived power to direct America and the world towards a more peaceful future. Above all, he promised a more bipartisan political climate and a focus on reasoned debate as a policy-making tool. Obama has certainly fulfilled some of these goals and expectations, but in other areas he has changed gears completely.
One of Obama’s first moves upon taking office was to start the process that would eventually close the controversial detention center at Guantanamo Bay. However, the move met with resistance from members of Congress. Despite relocating dozens of detainees in only a few months, the administration quietly backed away from its stance on Guantanamo. In August 2010, only months after Obama took office, military trials resumed for the detainees there. In early 2011, Obama gave up plans to prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohamed in a federal court– “a decision that would mark the effective abandonment of the president’s promise to close” Gitmo, according to the Washington Post.
Some say the administration let its Guantanamo agenda slide in favor of health care reform. And despite the fact that the President eventually managed to push that reform through, it was at the cost of a large amount of political capital. The debate over the bill pitted Republicans and Democrats against each other and gave Republicans the momentum they needed to retake the House in 2010. Passing the health care bill is one of the President’s biggest achievements, but it may not stand the test of time. Last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of the bill. Several justices–even moderates like Anthony Kennedy–seemed very skeptical of the law.
Those struggles, along with Obama’s endeavor in 2009 to make decisions regarding the Afghan war and the maddening budget debate last summer, have painted a picture of a president unwilling to take a firm stance, even when it means sacrificing his political agenda.
Perhaps in an effort to live up to his promise of fostering bipartisan cooperation, Obama has avoided using a strong executive role in his dealings with Congress. Far from actually encouraging bipartisan cooperation, however, this has made the President appear weak and indecisive. While Republican politicians have taken the 2010 election results as a mandate to fight the White House’s agenda on every front, the White House itself has at times seemed uncertain of how to accomplish its own goals.
Obama has recently taken some steps to combat this image. When changes to President Bush’s unpopular No Child Left Behind program were too slow in coming for the administration’s liking, Obama announced last week that the government would no longer enforce certain portions of the law. Going forward, schools will be able to create their own “accountability and improvement systems,” according to The New York Times.
Another striking difference between the Obama for which many people thought they were voting and the Obama in office today is his relationship with defense. The war in Afghanistan rolled past the decade mark in October, but despite a troop drawdown following a surge, the war seems no closer to ending. Obama and the State Department are currently playing a game of chicken with Iran over that state’s nuclear ambitions. Obama has recently said that he would accept a program in Iran that would allow nuclear power but not weapons. Though it seems unlikely, there is still some concern that the United States could become involved in yet another land war in Asia. Even if the outcome of this confrontation is peaceful, it is hard to imagine the Nobel committee is happy with the outcome of their 2009 choice.
With an election year looming and a less than exuberant four years behind him, it is not hard to imagine that Obama is rethinking the strategies that led him through his first term. The tendency to sit back and allow decisions to be made slowly by others is certainly a change from George “The Decider” Bush, but it is not necessarily an improvement. If Obama wants to win a second term, he needs to make good on the leadership style that was advertised to voters in 2008. Using his charisma and intelligence to run the executive branch while reaching for a more rational, less reactionary foreign policy agenda would reassure voters and–as a bonus–might even make the country stronger.