All of a sudden, people have noticed that we are in trouble, and many are saying it isn’t the president’s fault. All the bad news, from Iraq to Ukraine, from Libya and Syria to the Mexican border, just seems to have happened: Obama was standing there, golfing or shaking hands with donors, and, like a burst of bad weather, the winds blew, the skies opened, and things went to hell. Mysterious forces conspired against him, terrible setbacks occurred for no reason, and we were left with effects without a cause. His supporters commiserate with him and note his bad fortune at being in office at a time when events make his life difficult. Or they worry about the effect of all these misfortunes on his legacy. “Can Obama Weather the Current Geopolitical S—storm?” Mother Jones’s David Corn wondered recently. Judging from recent poll numbers—36 percent approve of his conduct of foreign relations—the answer appears to be “no.”
The reasons offered for why bad things aren’t his doing fall into three different categories: (1) The system is broken, the country is polarized, and the Republicans have become too insane to deal with; (2) stuff happens, and no one at all can do much about it; and (3) people think that the president ought to be Superman and solve all their problems, which is really expecting too much. As Joshua Keating wrote on July 21 in Slate: “There’s a tendency to judge U.S. foreign policy on the condition of the world at any given moment rather than the success of actual actions taken,” as if the condition and the actions can have no conceivable link. “U.S. leverage is limited,” wrote Robert Kuttner in the Huffington Post a day earlier. “U.S. projections of . . . bravado or prudence have little to do with” how recent events have come out. Added to this is the fact that we lack the easy simplicities of the good old days when Hitler and Stalin were murdering millions. “Republican jingoists scapegoat President Obama for all the world’s ills and try to impose a simple story of weakness and strength on events of stupefying complexity,” Kuttner added, complaining that today’s wars lack the grandeur and moral simplicity of the Cold War, and of course World War II. “Who are the good guys and bad guys in Syria and Iraq?” Corn concurred: “Barack Obama is in charge . . . at a time when the world seems to be cracking up more than usual. . . . There are no simple fixes to these nuance-drenched problems. . . . None of these matters are easily resolved.”
“Obama isn’t stalled out because he can’t lead,” writes Norman Ornstein in the Atlantic. No, the Democrats’ woes stem from the fact that the Republican party today is a fanatical opposition, bent for no very good reasons on bringing the president down. On a less partisan note, Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post looks back on our last three two-term presidents, and sees three men who campaigned as uniters turned into dividers by circumstance, or for reasons beyond their control. “Being president is the most powerful job in the world, at which you will most certainly fail,” he warns office-seekers, citing the arcs carved by both Obama and Bush 43: high marks at the start, a long slow deflation, and then a collapse in year six. What was the cause? “The decline of the bully pulpit as a persuasion mechanism . . . the deep partisanship . . . not only in Congress, but also in the electorate . . . the splintering of the mainstream media . . . the need to be ever-present . . . the difficulty of trying to drive home your preferred message of the day.”
Next on the list is the “Green Lantern Syndrome,” or the tendency to see presidents as mythical comic-book heroes, able to fly, see around and through anything, and pick up tall buildings. Thus in the Nation Eric Alterman foams at the mouth as he lambastes Maureen Dowd for indulging the “now platitudinous Beltway belief that Obama should just fix everything, already” instead of standing by, fundraising and hanging around with movie and rock stars, as the country and world go to hell. In Republican years, the fish rots from the head, but with Obama it’s merely preposterously high expectations.