As global crises mount, Obama has become the world's master of ceremonies

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Crises redefine a presidency just as earthquakes remake the landscape. In the case of President Obama, his reaction to recent crises - those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Japan are but the most recent - has revealed a cautious man who is nonetheless upending many long-held notions about what the world should expect from the United States and its commander in chief.

For most of the nation's early history, presidents played a supporting role in global affairs. (Until Teddy Roosevelt, none had even left the country.) Woodrow Wilson was the first to travel to Europe, and he set the stage for FDR to take on the role that would define all presidents from World War II through the end of the Cold War: leader of the free world.

Over the past two decades, however, presidents have carved out their own approaches. Buoyed by the Cold War victory and an economic boom, Bill Clinton eventually positioned himself as a sort of "President of the World," using the nation's uncontested superpower status to seek common ground and advance common goals. After Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush became "the decider," the unilateralist, with-us-or-against-us president.

Now the world is witnessing an American president who appears less inclined or less able to assert his country - or himself - as the dominant player in global affairs. He seems more comfortable with the bully pulpit than the "big stick," more at ease working within coalitions or even letting other nations take the lead where Washington once would have stood front and center.

But it is still unclear whether his soaring rhetoric and somewhat humbler stance will succeed in advancing U.S. objectives, be they the spread of democracy or containing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. What is clear is that the president, because of circumstances and his own temperament, is acting less as the so-called most powerful man in the world and more as the planet's master of ceremonies - nudging, exhorting and charming, but less comfortable flexing U.S. muscles than many of his predecessors.

Mayhem comes with the job, of course, but there is no doubt that Obama has faced an extraordinary array of challenges. Any notion that this president could set the global agenda was not just overtaken by events but overwhelmed by them. From the financial crisis to the strains in the Eurozone, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the stirrings of an Arab spring, from the bloodletting on the U.S.-Mexican border to the nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea, Obama has been buffeted every day in office.

The past week was a microcosm of his entire presidency. Even as Obama grappled with Japan's crises, the debate over military force against Libya's Moammar Gaddafi, Saudi Arabia's military intervention in Bahrain and Israel's decision to expand settlements following the killing of a family of settlers, the president had to prepare for a trip to Latin America, continue his budget battle on Capitol Hill, weigh in on education reform and make at least four media appearances concerning his March Madness picks.

Inaugurated in the baptism by fire of the mortgage catastrophe, the Obama White House has evolved beyond the "never let a crisis go to waste" hubris of its early days, when affairs were run by a handful of campaign consiglieri. Instead, we're seeing a White House more adept at multitasking precisely because it is seems increasingly content to sidestep or delay addressing as many crises as possible - shifting the burden to allies overseas or on Capitol Hill, or limiting its responses to press releases, tweets and off-the-record briefings.

New Chief of Staff William Daley and new national security adviser Tom Donilon have systematically sought to reengage with and make better use of Obama's Cabinet, which includes members who reportedly felt alienated and underused in the administration's early days. The team approach has been on display in the past week, with Cabinet secretaries and the vice president prominently deployed worldwide to deal with the avalanche of competing and urgent demands.

Although such shared responsibility is an improvement over the days when Obama seemed like the administration's only effective spokesperson, the flurry of activity doesn't mean that the nation is playing the leading role it traditionally assumes in the world's current crises.

Even with close presidential allies such as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) calling for the United States to move quickly to impose a no-fly zone for Libya, Obama deferred to the United Nations and the European Union. They dithered on the issue until finally voting in favor of action on Thursday - thus granting Gaddafi time to consolidate his position against the rebels. Whether the no-fly zone proves to be too little, too late or just in time will go a long way toward determining whether Obama's new foreign-policy approach is deemed deft and wise or feckless and indecisive.

The new approach has offered mixed results with other foreign-policy challenges that have emerged in recent days. The administration expressed muted public frustration with the Saudi intervention in Bahrain but did not back it up with any meaningful action to forestall the Saudis or to persuade any of the Persian Gulf monarchies to embrace long-overdue political reforms. On Japan, Obama expressed deep condolences and, unable to privately persuade the Japanese to be more candid about their nuclear crisis, was forced to go public with the "we said/they said" dispute between the two allies about radiation risks.

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