Ukraine is being invaded. Iraq and Syria are being consumed by the growth and nihilistic violence of the Islamic State. Most Americans have lost count of the number of cease-fires between Israel and Palestine agreed upon and later broken. Britain is on high alert by recommendation of the home office. The US faces an unresolved crisis of unattended immigrant children flooding in from South America. ObamaCare continues to be a failure that weighs on the job market and increases the cost of healthcare and insurance. Disputes continue as to whether the US government does or does not possess an email backup system that may have recorded the communications of former IRS chief Lois Lerner in reference to IRS targeting of conservative groups. After two weeks of violence and civil protest, the turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri, is only now beginning to calm. Oh, and then there’s that recession we never fully came out of.
It is still four months until the release of this publication’s year-end review, but it is safe to say that this year will not go down as a happy one in American politics and world affairs. Perhaps most disconcerting, however, is the fact that the president who once inspired many and was hailed by observers abroad as a leader who could restore international confidence in the United States looks, frankly, tired and bored.
Unless the current trajectory of his presidency should change, the summer of 2014 may well go down as the point when Barack Obama appeared to have simply given up. Since June, the president’s demeanor, his appearance, and his eagerness to appear responsive to developing crises have visibly devolved. The president who once stood proudly at the podium—whether we agreed with his entitlement to such pride or not—now slouches. His discourse with journalists appears entirely unpresidential, like the offhand musings of a regional manager at a bar with colleagues after work. Deeply interwoven into his policy statements on every major issue are bitter, angry accusations against Republicans, who he speaks of with more venom than any foreign enemy or terror group. And, most notably, his shamelessness in hitting the fundraising circuit and attending social events during major national and international crises has reached the point of being insulting.
To longstanding opponents and critics of the president (which this writer admits to being), some part of this newly despondent Obama is a positive development: at least his energies in producing new, rights-abrogating, anti-capitalist legislation are looking sapped, and he seems to be accepting that he does not have the political capital to accomplish any meaningful new programs in his second term as he did in his first with ObamaCare. However, standing by my article from earlier in the year, “When is it proper to root against a president?”, I am still brought to worry that the overtness of the president’s despondency and inaction pose a threat to the country as a whole. A president being politically isolated for pursuing a nihilistic policy at the expense of our economy and national well-being is one thing; a president who appears weak and disinterested to such an extent that he makes the whole country appear so with him is quite another.
A product of both the singularity of the position and its power, the policies of US presidents translate so directly into political capital that an executive’s course of action on a single issue can snowball into greater successes for the rest of his term or be their undoing. One need look no further than the passage of ObamaCare in March 2010. Imagine, for a moment, an Obama administration without ObamaCare. Perhaps its place would have been taken by some other great fiasco, but the monumentally failed health insurance regulation cost the president untold amounts of political capital not halfway through his first term, led to Republican victories in the 2010 midterm elections, has given Republicans more campaign material than they could have ever dreamed of, placed an election year curse on Democrats in 2014, and exacerbated the troubles of a still lagging economy, thereby robbing the president of the opportunity of having presided over a labor market resurgence. In fact, the argument could well be made that the president bought ObamaCare at the cost of his next six years in office. Had he foregone the bill and portrayed himself, contrary to the perceptions of his critics (and reality, incidentally) as a moderate, it is difficult to imagine what more he could have accomplished legislatively—whether or not it would have been at all positive.
(It is entirely realistic to consider that his resultant ability to do more in other areas would have been far more dangerous than ObamaCare, allowing the possibility that ObamaCare may be the best of two possible scenarios for free market advocates.)
The danger now for all Americans, his most vehement critics included, is that the president’s failure to act where he should act, and his failure to take firm, clear policies in America’s national defense and foreign relations is leading to a spiral of weakness and indecision that places the country in jeopardy. While the rise of the Islamic State and the weakness of the American-sponsored Iraqi state cannot be attributed entirely to Obama, his lack of clarity and his statement (intentional or accidental) that America does not have a strategy to deal with the situation in the region project an image of American leadership so unsteady and so frail as to embolden the enemy and inflame the situation ever more. It welcomes the aggression in Iraq and Syria as it encourages the aggressiveness of brutes and would-be dictators like Vladimir Putin.
Ultimately, a president like Obama who pursues a self-aggrandizing domestic agenda and a military policy of aimless interventionism deserves to have those policies hamstrung by Congress and the opposing will of an American population unwilling to be sacrificed, whether for his place in the history books or for populations half a world away whose fates are in no way tied to their own. Still, that widespread opposition on those fronts should translate into such a visible despondency on the part of the president that it jeopardizes our national security and leaves him unable to address such crucial issues as the immigration crisis is dangerous and disconcerting. What’s more: it shows an immaturity on the part of the president that he would allow the challenges of the office and of a divided government to manifest as such evident personal bitterness, resignation, and an all-or-nothing approach to the executive.
America needs leadership, direction, a sense of security, and a president with moral convictions and the strength and long-range thinking to achieve whatever solutions are possible with a divided legislature. Short of that, we could use one who looks like he isn’t already searching for another job.