About 8 years ago, when the Bush Administration’s Reign of Error was in it’s prime, and I couldn’t believe that Republicans continued to support the man, I made a promise to myself: If a Democrat were ever to occupy the White House I wouldn’t reflexively defend him if he didn’t deserve it.
I’ve done my best to keep that promise and if you asked me what I think of this president over the past 5 years, I would always try to give my real opinion, good or bad. Still, I’m well aware that I’ve been… let’s just say, “not as vocal” in pointing out the flaws of this president as I was of the last one. So let’s consider this my late attempt live up to the spirit of my promise as well as the promise itself.
Liberals, it’s time to admit it: Obama is not a very good president.
Of course, the usual caveats still apply. Despite all his failings, he’s still not any worse that George W Bush…and I have no regrets that John McCain didn’t win in 2008… or that Mitt Romney didn’t unseat him in 2012, both of which would have been disasters of epic proportions. But the relevant measuring stick wasn’t supposed to be “better than Bush” it was supposed to be “a transformational president,” or at least, “a good president.” For the most part, Obama has been neither.
I feel a little bad for piling on him when he’s down, but he’s down for a reason.
Hard to tell where to start, but let’s start with his “signature achievement,” Obamacare. Despite snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, his HHS department launched a website that wasn’t ready to be launched, and it almost tanked his most lasting accomplishment. There’s just no excuse for that and it just comes down to bad management. Effective managers may not know all the details of what is happening in each department, but they clearly communicate the importance of big policies and hold people accountable for their results. Too often, Obama has done neither.
Similar deal at the VA. When Obama ran for president, he made a point of talking about how the Bush Administration didn’t keep faith with veterans. He claimed (sometimes with good evidence) that they sent them to war and then neglected to take care of them when they came home. Obama’s VA took on a lot, adding coverage for veterans who suffered from conditions related to Agent Orange exposure and relaxing the rules on PTSD claims, but the VA was unable to keep up. Instead of improving wait times as he had promised, the problem got significantly worse. By 2012, pending claims had exploded to almost 900,000, with over 550,000 of those claims over 4 months old. Responses were hobbled by an antiquated computer system that prevented the Defense Department from communicating with the VA.
Again, the problems predated Obama, but at some time, he needs to take responsibility for the system and there are few things more sacred than meeting obligations to our veterans. I don’t expect Obama to single-handedly solve all the problems at the VA, but he once again showed ineffective management and no sense of urgency. It took a major scandal regarding lies about wait times at the VA and weeks of negative coverage before Obama acted to fire Shinseki and begin to really deal with this issue.
On foreign policy, Obama starts with a simple premise. He only wants to engage in military action in order to protect America. He thinks that foreign intervention has made us less safe instead of more safe and wants to avoid unnecessary military conflict.
The problem is that the world can’t be neatly split into what keeps us safe and what has nothing to do with us. Look at Syria: It’s a civil war between Assad and the Sunni rebels. Assad is a terrible actor. He gets support from Iran and he helps fund Iranian proxies like Hezbollah who are attacking Israel and destabilizing Lebanon. But the most effective rebels fighting against Assad are Sunni militants with ties to Al Qaeda. The only thing worse than having Assad in power in Syria is having Sunni militants allied with Al Qaeda. So Obama stays out…and now we have ISIS (the people who were so maniacally evil that they were kicked out of Al Qaeda) occupying large swaths of Syria AND Iraq. I’m not going for Hillary’s argument that supporting the small moderate rebel force would have prevented the rise of ISIS, but it’s hard to argue that not being involved made us more safe.
“Don’t do stupid shit” is a great start, but it’s no substitute for a strategic vision. Obama has had a fair number of experienced people in his administration: Bob Gates, David Petreaus, Jim Jones, Leon Panetta. He also has some political types that have a lot of foreign policy experience: Biden, Kerry, Hillary, Hagel… What he lacks is Grand Strategy person. Nixon had Kissinger, Carter had Brzezinski, George HW Bush had Scowcroft, GW had a lot of Grand Strategy people (Cheney, Wolfowitz…) almost all of them with terrible ideas. Where is Obama’s Scowcroft? Obama seems to think that he doesn’t need a Grand Strategy guy because he’s the Kissinger, but the proof is in the pudding, and so far, it’s been weak sauce as far as a strategic vision.
I don’t typically cite the Wall Street Journal’s Op Ed page, but this Kimberly Strasssel article has some merit. Even when he has had experienced Foreign Policy hands in his administration, he relies more on a coterie of sycophants on his National Security Council to advise him. Both Jim Jones and Gates complained about how much the White House Staff were involved in foreign policy discussions. Tom Donnilan? The guy’s a hack. Ben Rhodes? He’s not much more than a kid who used to write speeches for Obama. Rice? She might be smart, but she’s no Scowcroft. She’s not even a Condi.
Also, there have been a lot of cases where Obama ignored the overwhelming opinion of his advisers. Hillary, Gates and Panetta all wanted to arm the rebels in Syria. Kerry made a strong case in preparation for air strikes against Syria before Obama decided to ask the Tea Party for permission. I understand that strong leaders sometimes resist the advice of their advisors, but it’s hard to make a case at this point that Obama was right in ignoring the counsel of his foreign policy team with regards to arming the Syrian opposition.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that Obama seems at times to have given up on his job. He’s like a man who is so disappointed that the world didn’t meet his expectations that he has given up trying to make a difference. It reminds me of Bush in his last year, but Obama’s not even done with half his second term.
I could go on, but I probably don’t need to. If liberals continue to defend Obama when he doesn’t deserve it, then we’re no better than Republicans who continued to defend Bush while he was so obviously driving the country into a ditch. I continue to root for this president to live up to the high expectations I had for him and I’ll continue to defend him when he is unfairly criticized. But we can’t ignore the reality in front of our faces. The country deserves better than that.