It's Too Soon to Write Off Obama


Is it over for President Obama? Yes, says Fouad Ajami in The Wall Street Journal, arguing that the president can't salvage his presidency and he is doomed to fall into Jimmy Carter-like irrelevance. Not so fast, says David Rothkopf at our sister publication Foreign Policy. He argues that it is simply too soon to write off Obama's presidency as a failure. He notes that all of our previous presidents had their first terms in office defined by events beyond their control, and well past 18 months in office.

This is just silliness, of course. First of all, at this point in the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, they had not defined themselves, and indeed, each appeared very different from how we view them today.
Kennedy was still pretty much a work in progress, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was still two months away. Johnson accomplished a great deal, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act, and, if defined by his first 18 months, would have been regarded as a great success. It wasn't until after 1966 that his political fortunes began to turn with the deepening involvement in Vietnam and spreading unrest in American cities. Nixon was years away from Watergate at this point. It was in August of his second year that the Camp David process began in the Carter presidency, and a deal would not be struck until March of the following year. The "malaise" speech and the Iran hostage crisis were well over a year away.

Reagan, whom Ajami deeply admires and distinguishes from Obama because he allegedly believed in America more than the current president (setting aside Obama's life story as testimony that argues to the contrary), was during the first two years of his presidency still trying to find his sea legs. Yes, he had handled the air traffic controllers, but the "evil empire" speech and the "Star Wars" proposal were still, at this point in his presidency, more than half a year away. And the Iran-Contra affair (which may have slipped Ajami's mind) and the "tear down that wall" speech and the four Reagan-Gorbachev summits were all years away. For George H.W. Bush, August of his second year in office saw Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. U.S. planning for the invasion began in the ensuing weeks. But arguably, for all his successes, Bush's enduring image was shaped most by his missteps during the 1992 campaign.

The supple presidency of Bill Clinton that began next really didn't reach its full suppliciousness until the second term, both in terms of economic successes, foreign policy triumphs or the scandal that redefined it. Finally, similarly, while 9/11 offered George W. Bush his finest hour in the first year of his term, the invasion of Iraq that defined him did not take place until 2003, and the mismanagement of the war that defined it almost as much as its misconception took several years after that. In other words, no recent president (I left out Gerald Ford due to the unique circumstances and tenure of his presidency) has been defined at this point in his presidency, and most saw major swings in popularity and objective successes and failures throughout their terms. In short, recent history suggests that it is almost impossible to know a president or characterize a presidency at this point in a term of office.


Of course we could have made the argument even shorter. Isn't Ajami the guy who urged the U.S. into Iraq and Afghanistan with predictions that the invasion could remake the Middle East? Ah, such conveniently short memories at the Journal.

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