How Great Was Barack Obama?

How Great Was Barack Obama?

Derek Chollet’s The Middle Way: How Three Presidents Shaped America’s Role in the World offers spirited but questionable assessments, particularly of the Barack Obama presidency.

Chollet’s vindication of Obama’s policies is coupled with his critique of Trump. He is most explicit in doing so in his final two chapters, entitled “Politics” and “Legacy.” Here he is on much stronger footing, simply because the Trump years were nothing less than an ongoing disaster, both abroad and at home. In at least two respects, however, Obama provided a model for Trump. Faced with a hostile Congress, Obama chose to sidestep the legislative branch entirely, unlike George H.W. Bush, or for that matter, Ronald Reagan, who strove to reach some understanding with at least one side of Capitol Hill controlled by the Democratic Party. Instead, for the most part, Obama circumvented Congress and governed by executive order. Trump did the same, only to a far greater and more devastating extent. 

Likewise, Trump’s neo-isolationist policy owed more to Obama than Chollet is prepared to admit. In addition to its nasty connotations that evoked the pro-fascist elements of 1930s America, Trump’s “America First” was simply a more radical formulation of Obama’s “nation building begins at home.” Trump’s attitude to allies was certainly perverse, but his threats to withdraw support for allies who did not increase their defense spending certainly seemed to echo Obama’s critique of “free riders.” Trump was certainly a crude, vulgar bully but Obama was simply more suave in seeking the very same objective. 

Obama left one “legacy” that, not surprisingly, Chollet chose to ignore: the so-called “sequester.” In the summer of 2011, the Obama administration confronted the imminent prospect of American default on its debt obligations as well as what it viewed as an intransigent Republican Congressional majority that was unwilling to contemplate tax increases to help solve the debt crisis. Obama’s advisors concocted a complex plan that would both increase the debt ceiling, and at the same time force the Republicans either to accept tax increases or accept roughly equal cuts in both domestic and military spending, called budget caps. Any Congressional increases above the cap in any year of the nine years during which the sequester would remain in force would result in mindless across-the-board budget cuts. Obama’s team bet that the Republicans would never agree to limits on defense spending over the course of a decade, and thus would be forced to accept Obama’s plan for tax increases. They were wrong. The Republicans, heavily influenced by an influx of legislators supported by Tea Party activists, called the Obama bluff, and the Budget Control Act of 2011 became law.

Successive Obama’s secretaries of defense railed against the sequester, but it remained in force, although the Congress did modify the budget caps every two years. The net result was that the president’s plans for tax increases to support his objective to increase domestic spending failed to materialize, while the Department of Defense was forced to cut training and other elements of its Operations and Maintenance budget, thereby taking a heavy toll on military readiness. Little wonder that Chollet preferred not to mention the dreaded “s” word; it hardly enhanced Obama’s legacy.

THE MIDDLE Way represents a valiant attempt to polish the national security image of the forty-fourth president. Much more polishing will be needed, however. Obama simply did not provide Chollet with sufficient material to present a convincing case on his behalf. 

Indeed, Obama’s record is one of multiple failures especially, but as the sequester fiasco demonstrates, not solely, in the Middle East. As the veteran Middle East analyst Shmuel Rosner recently observed in the pages of The New York Times in what can only be seen as a critique of the Obama presidency:

The United States was unsuccessful in its half-hearted quest to contain Iranian expansion; it was missing in action in the Syrian civil war; it bet on wrong horses during the so-called Arab Spring; it has alienated the Saudis, let Russia take over Libya and did nothing of value to resolve the Palestinian issue.

Nevertheless, for those seeking to glorify Barack Obama, The Middle Way will not disappoint. It is both engaging, well written and forcefully argued. Anyone searching for a more balanced account of his national security record will have to look elsewhere.

Dov S. Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985–1987. He also served as the DoD's civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters