Paul Pillar

Evaluating Obama

Most of the end-of-presidency appraisals of Barack Obama’s performance in office have failed to capture the most important aspects of his presidency and what distinguishes it from others.  This shortcoming is only partly due to the difficulty of making good judgments about such things without the perspective that only the passage of time can provide—although this difficulty is indeed a significant factor, as suggested by how much general opinion about some past presidents has changed over time.

Appraisals that are inclined to praise Mr. Obama, including ones coming from people associated with his administration, have often taken the form of laundry lists of accomplishments while doing little to capture the more general essence of his approach to public policy.  One accomplishment in particular that probably has been invoked so often that the frequency of the invocation has been well out of proportion to its intrinsic significance is the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Appraisals inclined to be critical of Mr. Obama have been coming mainly from two different camps that on most issues disagree strongly with each other.  One consists of those on the political right who have opposed President Obama all along and are simply extending their opposition into their retrospective commentary.  The other camp includes progressive realists who express disappointment that Mr. Obama did not do more than he did to extract the United States from wars, to curtail an overextended and overly interventionist foreign policy, and to move more boldly to shake loose from some other costly habits of what had become a Washington consensus.  The criticism, from either or both of these camps, has exhibited three major deficiencies, among others.

One is to lose sight of what is practically and politically feasible, and to judge this president against some hypothetical ideal rather than against feasible alternatives.  Presidents need to be graded on the curve, because hypothetical ideals are impossible standards for anyone to meet in the real world of political competition and policy-making.  Populating the curve are presidents who come before and after, and alternative policies seriously offered—as distinct from vague expressions of dislike for the status quo—during the graded president’s own term.  Presidential politics, like other politics, is the art of the possible, and wise presidents pick which battles to wage and where they should allocate limited political resources.

In this regard, a theme heard from both of the critical camps is that President Obama did not walk the walk as much as he talked the talk.  Too many stated aspirations, in other words, and not enough follow-through accomplishment.  The important distinction that gets lost in this theme is between, on one hand, duplicity in stating objectives without any genuine intention of pursuing them and, on the other hand, laying out a direction and endeavoring to move the needle in that direction even if the president is unable to move it as far as many of his supporters would like.  There is little or no evidence of the former in Mr. Obama’s pronouncements and policies; there is plenty of evidence of the latter, including those relating to avoiding costly and damaging overseas expeditions.

A second deficiency of the criticism is to lose sight of the fact that Mr. Obama inherited a miserable situation, at home and abroad, upon entering office—worse than that handed to any of the other several most recent presidents.  This included the most severe recession since the Great Depression, one that reached its depth just about when Mr. Obama took the oath of office.  It included the effects of the badly mistaken invasion of Iraq, with not only continuous civil war in Iraq itself but also the exacerbation of wider sectarian conflict and stimulation of terrorism, which fed directly into so many of the preoccupying foreign policy problems, especially in the Middle East, that demanded the Obama administration’s attention.  When one must devote most of one’s available strength and attention and political chips to dig out of deep holes, there is that much less left to make positive progress above ground.  This sort of handicap needs to figure in a fair evaluation of any president.