The Worldview of Barack Obama

As Obama enters the fifth year of his presidency, the broad outlines of a distinct worldview, if not an Obama Doctrine, have come into focus.

As Barack Obama enters the sixth year of his presidency, the broad outlines of a distinct worldview, if not an Obama Doctrine, have come into focus. Specifically, the administration’s recent response to events in the Middle East – balking at retaliating against Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons, reaching an interim nuclear deal with Iran, emphasizing a narrow focus on regional “core interests” in the president’s recent address to the UN General Assembly – underscores a determination to exhaust diplomatic options and, with memories of a decade of draining, inconclusive war still clear, avoid entanglement in messy conflicts of dubious strategic value.

Decried by some as a retreat, hailed by others as a prudent effort to bring America’s external commitments into closer alignment with its finite resources, Obama’s overarching strategy of modified retrenchment can be explained by the sort of structural factors typically emphasized by political scientists. In this case, that means strategic overextension, resource constraints, and anti-interventionist popular sentiment.

Yet scarcely any mention has been made of how the president’s personality has shaped his actions. This is an odd omission; the White House’s centralization of foreign policy decision making has enabled Obama to fashion a strategy largely to his own liking. Indeed, consideration of Obama’s beliefs, personality traits, and temperament both sheds light on the path he has charted and points to potential shortcomings in his assumptions.

Obama’s less expansive vision of U.S. power can be directly tied to his formative experiences. Unique among American presidents, Obama’s adolescence had a decidedly cosmopolitan flavor to it, which he highlighted on the campaign trail in 2008 when touting his foreign policy judgment. The bulk of his childhood was spent in his native Hawaii, home to a bewildering array of different cultures and ethnic groups. His stay here was interrupted for about four years when he moved with his mother to Indonesia. Exposure to such diversity could not have failed to shape his perspective on America’s global role as one country among many, rather than the center of the world.

Some observers have taken the argument further, holding that Obama’s political ambitions were fed by a psychological need to atone for the failings of his father, who entertained grandiose hopes for his own career but died an embittered and defeated man, and by a larger sense that this project of redemption would be incomplete without reforming a country that has also fallen short of its ideals. Such theories, of course, can likely never be substantiated. It is plausible to assume, however, that as both a community organizer who worked in low-income neighborhoods in Chicago and an African American all too familiar with the country’s checkered record on racial equality, Obama harbors more nuanced views of American exceptionalism.

He has at times employed remarkably introspective rhetoric for a national leader, demonstrating an awareness of past abuses of American power and the urgency of reining it in, as when he recently warned: “Unless we discipline our thinking…[and] our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.”

A risk-averse posture that strives to avoid resource-consuming foreign entanglements may also be a natural outgrowth of the passive temperament he has displayed at home. To the bafflement of many commentators, he seems either unwilling or unable to leverage the considerable powers of his office – whether via the bully pulpit or twisting arms on Capitol Hill – to implement his often bold ideas. His discomfort with the give-and-take of politics has often resulted in his ceding of the floor to opponents, allowing them to define the terms of national debate. It may be that boredom or inertia sets in for Obama when he is confronted with the gap between what he hopes to achieve and what prevailing conditions will permit, which accounted for his impatience with the prolonged horse trading that came with being a senator in both Illinois and Washington, D.C.