Broken Promises

Hope Isn’t Enough: Without Conviction or Destination, Obama Flounders

Syria. Egypt. Afghanistan. Guantánamo. Food stamps. Gun laws. Any way you turn, the “hope” Obama has promised is turning rancid, writes Stuart Stevens.

Evan Vucci/AP

Perhaps it was inevitable, that any president branded and sold as “Hope” was destined to disappoint. But in these scorching summer doldrums of 2013, you have to wonder: did it have to be this disappointing?

Is this really the same Barack Obama who had such high expectations for resetting relationships with the Muslim world that he gave his first television interview as president to Al Arabiya television, declaring that "my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world”?

Now we're giving aid to Syrian rebels who eat the heart of their defeated foes, while in Egypt we seem resigned to working with whoever can fill Tahrir Square with the most people at the moment. Immediately after his election in 2008, President-Elect Obama said in response to a question from Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes about the use of executive orders, "I have said repeatedly I intend to close Guantánamo."

But five years later, prisoners in Guantánamo are trying to starve themselves to death because, whatever he said he intended, he hasn't done it. He can blame Republicans all he wants, but as senator Obama said in a 2007 debate, "When we have a situation like Guantánamo where we have suspended habeas corpus, to the extent we are not being true to our values and our ideals, that sends a negative message to the world and it gives us less leverage when we want to deal with countries who are abusing human rights."

As they say, "hope" is not a strategy, but it turns out that was Obama’s plan for dealing with the world. The hallmark of great presidents is clarity of vision and purpose or at least the perception of such. In his best moments as a candidate, Barack Obama offered that like few political figures of this or any time. He seemed to believe deeply in his mission, so many Americans believed. Indeed, many across the globe believed.

But today it's precisely a lack of belief and conviction that haunts this president. His support for the Syrian rebels seems forced and reluctant. If he has a diplomatic or strategic vision for Egypt, it's a mystery. In Afghanistan, over three times as many Americans have died under President Obama than President Bush, and it's difficult to maintain that the American policy has been a success. In the last campaign, President Obama repeatedly assured the public that all U.S. troops would be out by 2014. Now we are told U.S. troops will remain for an indefinite time helping to train Afghan forces. We are negotiating with the Taliban but we aren't negotiating with the Taliban. It's a mess and Americans continue to die.

In 2007, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column for The New York Times hailing Obama—Man of the World. “His experience as an antipoverty organizer in Chicago” wrote the pundit, “gives him a deep grasp of a crucial 21st-century challenge—poverty in America—that almost all politicians lack.”

But today fewer Americans are working full time than when Obama took office, and a record number of Americans have fallen into poverty. Almost half of New York City lives below the poverty line. Over 16 million more Americans are now on food stamps. But the president has spent more time playing golf with Tiger Woods and raising money with Wall Street millionaires—his presidential campaigns have raised more money from Wall Street than any in history—than focusing concern for the poor.

The president's greatest passion is clearly for more gun control. While his hometown of Chicago has draconian gun control laws, it is a slaughterhouse of gun violence, and still the president is unable to muster support for new legislation. Every time he talks about how 90 percent of the public supports his position, it only makes him look more impotent. This is a president who can't even pass legislation with 90 percent public support?

Obamacare remains his signature achievement and it is likely to be the program for which he will be most judged by history. At the moment, like Obama's foreign policy, it's a chaotic mess, a policy that appears to have timid support from those charged with its execution.

Looming over all this is a president who doesn't seem to care what anyone thinks. No doubt he feels vindicated by reelection and that's understandable, perhaps inevitable. But if reelection is validity enough, then President Bush's victory proved that the Iraq war was a success. Perhaps Obama will wake up and surprise us with a new agenda and renewed engagement. Perhaps it's just the summer heat and the inevitable realization that promising more than you can deliver works only in short-term transactions and eight years is a long time.

One thing is certain: the Obama years will be judged by results, not the quality of his excuses. You can't ask to be granted the chance to become a transformational figure in world history, be given that opportunity, and then hope that you can blame anyone else when Hope didn't work out.

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These are the Obama years. How's it working out?