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Maxilateral Man

Obama’s essence.

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Perhaps the single most revealing statement of Barack Obama’s presidency is his repeated call (most prominently in a speech announcing the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan) for “nation-building here at home.” It seems clear that Obama’s personal preference was for a presidency devoted to domestic matters; he believes the country has a ways to go to fulfill its founding promises (the theme of his second Inaugural Address). The tenacity with which he pursued health care reform, long past the point at which it was clear that Democrats would pay a heavy political price for its passage, testifies to his view of the importance to be attached to fulfilling the promise of the New Deal. So does his public embrace of the term “Obamacare,” which was an invention of his political opponents intended to be derisory. In the long run, as he evidently sees it, having his name permanently attached to the program that finally begins to make good on universal health care is worthy tribute. 

Perhaps his most quoted statement, though he certainly didn’t repeat it, was his unfortunately phrased admonition to small-business owners, “You didn’t build that,” on which opponents pounced. On its own terms, it seemed to belittle the hard work required to run a successful business. In context, it’s a little different but more deeply revelatory. Obama’s point was that someone who runs a small business is not an autonomous entity whose fate lies solely in his own hands. Success depends also on the social conditions in which one operates. In Obama’s apparent view, this backdrop is a precondition of individual success. And, of course, government shapes much of that environment.

I think Obama would agree that “You didn’t build that” applies equally well (and equally clumsily) to his own success. “I have a gift,” he once said of his oratorical skills, and though you could construe such a statement as a boast, it’s probably closer to the mark to see Obama as attributing that aspect of his talent to something other than his own endeavor. There can be no autonomous individual outside a political and social context, and he seems to have taken his mission to be the improvement by government of the context in which individuals thrive or fail to thrive. Obama’s view is about 180 degrees from that of Herbert Hoover, who attributed the progress of society to outstanding individuals and their ability to achieve.

 It's noteworthy that even in the phrase “nation-building at home,” Obama gets to the topic of domestic policy only by way of foreign -policy. The world is something one simply must, as president, deal with. Its demands come first. It might be an accident of history, in the sense that Obama came into office with two wars underway. But it is also a reflection of the outsized role of the president of the United States in shaping events all over the world.

And on foreign affairs and the role of the United States in the world, Obama has again failed to provide us a credo. But there have perhaps been enough incidents by now to make a few educated guesses.

Obama brought the Iraq war to a close in a fashion that did about as much as humanly possible to annul its existence in the first place. Uncharacteristically for such a large-scale intervention, the United States has no remaining military presence in Iraq. Supposedly, the reason is that we were unable to conclude a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government. If Obama is the least bit sorry about that, he has given no sign. Hence, the annulment of a war he regarded as wrong and illegitimate.

We don’t have a final answer on Afghanistan, a war Obama has consistently described as necessary in response to 9/11. But what Afghanistan also had, and Iraq lacked, was a great deal of enshrined international legitimacy. Once underway, the war was “legalized” under United Nations Security Council resolutions. It had the support of NATO, our most important alliance, which unanimously decided to view 9/11 in light of Article V of the NATO treaty, which deems an attack on one member as an attack on all. And Congress, as well, authorized military action against those who perpetrated or aided the 9/11 attacks. This authority extended well beyond toppling the Taliban, and the Obama administration relies on it to this day.

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