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.
For those of us who have decried for years the image of a John Wayne America, a bully with an itchy trigger finger, the more temperate attitude is welcome. But defaulting to talk therapy makes sense only if the approach reduces risks while still advancing the nation’s interests. If, for political or economic or personality reasons, the United States and its leaders are perceived as less forceful in the world — if the “or else” is off the table— then the country’s initiatives are certain to be less effective. Ask those in charge of Iran’s nuclear program.
Words do matter: Obama’s speech in Cairo in June 2009 could someday be considered a signature moment, perhaps even as an inspiration for changes sweeping the Middle East. But today reformers in Egypt have been alienated by U.S. actions that did not live up to the president’s rhetoric. Obama is fashioning a new leadership style for an era of greater limitations on the United States, but the trick with leadership is not just knowing where to go but getting others to follow, quickly and in a committed fashion.
The one major exception, the one place in which the president has put personal and national prestige on the line in a manner far exceeding a master of ceremonies, is in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, despite Gen. David H. Petraeus’s recent upbeat assessment of the conflict before Congress, the range of likely outcomes there is hardly encouraging. If, in the wake of the United States’ upcoming departure from Iraq, the administration finds a way to declare victory in Afghanistan and start withdrawing forces there as well, Obama will lead a nation seemingly less interested in projecting force overseas or acting unilaterally than it has been in the past several decades, not perhaps since Jimmy Carter in the post-Vietnam period.
Given the costs of the the United States’ recent overseas misadventures, many would welcome such a shift. And with the nation’s long-term domestic challenges, Obama may be but the first in a long line of presidents to embrace a less-is-more approach. But for those accustomed to turning to the United States for strong leadership or to provide the spine in unwilling international partnerships, it is likely to prove a frustrating change. The master of ceremonies, after all, may win applause and even seem to run the show, but such appearances are an illusion, and many of the leading roles will be left to nations and leaders unaccustomed to or uncomfortable with the limelight. Their performances may not appeal to U.S. audiences, and they may even suffer stage fright and leave the world’s stage unoccupied — save perhaps for the lone figure still holding the mic, commenting on whether the United States likes how things are going.
David J. Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of “Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power” and “Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making.”