The Education of Barack Obama

Last week President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, which he has done five times before.  He spoke of a “network of death” and the “cancer of violent extremism” in the Middle East and said that “the only language understood by killers like this is the language of force” while promising to lead a coalition to find a military solution to the challenge of ISIS.  The President also had sharp words for Russia, describing it as a “bully” and rejecting its “vision of the world in which might makes right.”

Observers have noted that the UN speech represents a dramatic change in the President’s tone and focus.  A National Journal article compares the six UN speeches and shows a President who has been transformed from a believer in “hope” and “change” and a world in which everyone shares a common interest in peace to a man who realizes that there are bad people in the world, that they want to do evil things, and that the only way they can be thwarted is by deeds, not words.  Optimism — about relations with Russia, about common values and shared dreams, about an inexorable arc of progress toward a rosy future — has been replaced by a recognition that the world right now may be teetering on the brink.

Only two years ago, President Obama mocked Mitt Romney’s realpolitick view of the world and America’s role — I thought an unseemly low point for the President in this regard came during a debate discussion about Russia in which he sarcastically stated that the 1980s had called and wanted its foreign policy back — but now the President has come around to largely adopt Romney’s position, and to use language that is reminiscent of President George W. Bush.  He probably won’t acknowledge that fact, but at least he now recognizes the threats we face and is resolved to do something about them.

Conservatives may criticize the President for being late to the game and for failing to more quickly recognize and respond to the threats posed by ISIS, Russia, and other bad actors on the world stage.  That’s fair, I suppose, but I think most of us learn from experience and modify our views of the world as we go through life.  President Obama also is learning the lessons taught by the School of Hard Knocks.  As we all know, such lessons can painful, but we can hope in this instance that they are lessons that are well-learned.

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On The Cusp Of A Second Term

Today, as America celebrates Martin Luther King’s birthday, President Barack Obama will be publicly sworn in for his second term.  The President officially took the oath of office yesterday, in a small ceremony in the White House Blue Room presided over by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

Historically, second terms have not been kind to American presidents.  President George W. Bush limped home, dogged by poor poll numbers, Hurricane Katrina, the ongoing effect of two wars, and an economy that was plunging into recession.  His experience was an extreme example of the problems that typically beset Presidents during their second term — falling popularity, scandals, recessions and other economic problems, and an almost immediate lame duck status.  The lame duck problem has become even worse recently, with the focus on the next presidential election beginning earlier and earlier each cycle and the haggard President who seems to have been in office forever being compared, unfavorably, to the fresh new faces vying to replace him.  By the end of their second terms, most Presidents seem almost irrelevant.

It’s not difficult to see storm clouds on the horizon for President Obama, either.  The American economy continues to struggle and unemployment remains high.  If America slips back into an official recession, the President will take the blame.  There is no consensus on how to deal with the nation’s unsustainable budget deficits, and a tough fight looms with budget hawks on increasing the debt ceiling.  In Europe, many countries are teetering on the fiscal edge.  The world is still a dangerous place, with potential flashpoints to be found across Africa, the middle East, and Asia.  And those are just the readily apparent problems.  Recent history also teaches us that Presidents must also expect the unexpected, and frequently it is the unpredicted crisis that is the most wounding.

I disagree with President Obama on many things, but I wish him well as he begins his second term.  He is our President, and America needs successful leadership.  I pray that he finds it within himself to work with his political opponents and actually tackle our problems rather than letting them slide.  I hope that he discovers that lame duck status can be liberating, and that being freed from having to stand for reelection allows you to make the difficult, often unpopular decisions that will be necessary to resolve our budget and spending woes.