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Is Obama the Worst President Since World War II?

Published on 23 December 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors.

He that can have patience can have what he will.

To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals.


Poor Richard’s Almanack

US NEWS’ headline screams: Americans Voted Obama Worst President since World War II.[1] The text is more precise in its opening paragraph: “A new poll[2] shows Americans think President Barack Obama is the worst commander in chief since World War II.”

This statement offers me the opportunity for a closer and deeper (albeit subjective) look at the historical context of the Obama presidency. I’ll argue from analogy – my 309 – trying, however, to tread lightly (and breezily) on points of similitude.

First the obvious: the poll asked a select group of American citizens to rank the twelve Presidents since WWII from “best” to “worst.” The issue of the role as “Commander in Chief” does not come up in the questionnaire. Never mind that only 6% of the interviewees identified “foreign policy issues” (and merely 3% “war”) as “most important.” Identifying the main function of the US President as “Commander in Chief” allows the article’s author to project a militaristic view of the Presidency. This view echoes the stance of Obama’s predecessor who, having declared “war on terror,” saw himself as Commander in Chief in an endless war, and aspired to corresponding powers.

Indeed, President Obama’s ratings now are low. As lame-duck Democratic President with a Republican-controlled Congress, his standing in the polls is unlikely to advance much. He won’t be popular when he leaves on 20th January 2017. How will history judge him? Taking a longer view, and as a foreigner, I’d argue here that President Obama might go down in history as one of the great, albeit tragic and sad, American Presidents.

Over-optimistically maybe, Barack Obama proclaimed: YES WE CAN in his election campaign. What he meant was: we can move forward, leaving the past behind. The presidency, however, came with two interrelated and “impossible” tasks from the past. They are paraphrased as “weaning the US off exceptionalism,” i.e. the widespread sentiment that the US is qualitatively different from other states.[3] Ill discuss them in turn. Obama recognized the challenge and took it on. He made major compromises in regard to his more than generous domestic policy ambition: bringing enhanced national health policies to the recalcitrant nation.

Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors.

Winding up the hegemonic stance of the US

President Obama was handed two wars of choice, with the implicit instruction of winding them down. The US has left Iraq and is about to leave Afghanistan. He will accomplish this immediate mission.

It is to Obama’s credit that he was able to withdraw from Iraq well ahead of the inevitable metastasizing of the insurgency. One could have expected the phenomenon; in fact, some experts did in 2003.[4] An ill-conceived and poorly executed American invasion created “blow-back.”

Even minimal historical knowledge shows that occupation leads to insurgency – the only open issue is the contingent path-dependent outcome.[5] After 2008, local complications emerged. Neighboring countries rushed into the vacuum left by the US. Shi’a and Sunni, fundamentalists and reformers, autocrats and democrats jockeyed for position. Civil war, which has traditionally characterized the transfer of power in Islamic countries, broke out. It is to Obama’s credit that he is trying his best to avoid being goaded into a new entanglement.

Leaving Afghanistan has been a far more complicated issue than Iraq. The logistics of extracting US assets – mostly through Central Asia and Russia – is mind-boggling, and fraught with political landmines, in particular the goodwill of Russia. After about 40 years of civil war and invasion, the social structures of the country are in tatters.[6] The region as a whole is unstable. Religious fanatism is rampant. The withdrawal seems to succeed at the moment, though the outlook for the country remains cloudy.

It is further to President Obama’s credit that he did not topple Qaddafi – that was a French folly. The Libyan dictator used modern means of communication as well as loads of money to spread his narrow vision of Islam throughout the sub-Saharan belt of states. With Qaddafi’s demise, whatever coherence there was in these movements has vanished. The Islamist bush-fires now dotting the African landscape may be Gaddafi’s lasting legacy.

The lessons of the last fifteen years are there for all to see. The challenge of asymmetric warfare is deadly for the hegemon. The US has paid $ 2.5 trillion (and counting) to avenge a $ 200’000 investment in terrorist pilots. I’m not talking of the expenditure on enhanced security of the homeland, which is threatening the very democratic roots of the country. Ignoring the challenge means “losing face:” each time the hegemon rushes forward and falls blindly into the trap. Winning the “war on terror,” or projecting power worldwide is no longer in the cards, if it ever was.[7] The hegemonic stance is no longer a viable strategy.

Russia has given up hegemonic aspirations for a regional stronghold. China, historically in any case averse to fighting wars,[8] sees itself in the center by a mix of economic and political means. Both are aware that also in such reduced circumstances asymmetric warfare is a real threat to the stability of their regimes, and thus tread cautiously at home as well.

The only reasonable thing left for the US would be to follow suit and become a major player in a worldwide concert of great powers, while renouncing hegemonic aspirations. President Obama seems to go in this direction. Albeit his detractors argue: “Unfortunately, today’s chapter, like the others before it, is one of America and the values it stands for in retreat and decline.”[9] It takes courage to wind down a hegemonic position.

He that can have patience can have what he will.

To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals.

The closing of the “American frontier”

According to TURNER’s Significance of the American Frontier,[10] America’s popular culture may have perceived and portrayed the country as a God-given[11] place and a republic of unlimited possibilities and liberties for all. In particular, the “land” is there for the taking and transforming in accordance to one’s judgment. Today, this perception of land as being free, unfettered, and without borders – that the “frontier” is open – seems outmoded. We recognize that the use of the land has environmental consequences – in particular climate change. I this sense, the “frontier” has closed. Adaptation would seem to be the best way forward.

To understand the popular reaction, let’s take a step back. According to Eric NELSON, the ideals underpinning the emergence of the “Hebrew Republic,” ideals on which America was in many ways modeled, were: republican exclusivism, redistribution, and toleration.[12] In an agrarian society, redistribution meant that the individual’s hold on the land was not absolute. Peasants held the land in trust; they must account for it and eventually return it to the Maker. In a “Hebrew Republic,” the “frontier” is not open.

America created the ideal “city on the hill” and the Garden of Eden on earth. In such an ideal, the need for redistribution might have turned into its opposite. Because the American republic is the fulfillment of Gods intent, redistribution is no longer needed, and the “frontier” has opened. Redistribution – even to the environment – would seem disruption of a God-ordained order to “subdue” it. The promise of progress and change set in the original political thought has turned deeply conservative: change implies deviation from the ideal already in place.

Now back to climate change. One way or another, the US is one of the largest drivers of climate change. The US ought to take the lead in mitigation. The lack of political will has been documented by the election of a “know nothing” Congress.[13] There is in my view a distinctly religious fervor[14] to the rejection of the evidence of climate change or the need for action. It reveals an inchoate belief that setting limits to one’s actions is akin to original sin.

To accept the ned for action on climate change implies that the “frontier” is no longer open. If this hunch is true, reasoning on the truth of climate change would be futile. In fact, science is perceived as playing the role of the wily snake in the Garden of Eden. The gut-level fear of “retreat and decline” in environmental issues makes any change in policy most difficult.

Despite it all, President Obama has been trying to move the country forward on climate change as well. In particular, he has sought a compact with China in order to deflect the invidious finger-pointing that had doomed the Copenhagen Summit. Given time, his step-by-step approach based on “coalition of the willing” may even move the world forward – “good enough” to forestall the worst.

Obama is akin to Germany’s President Ebert

In World War I, Germany was destined to win, according to German self-portraits. It near did, in the early months of 1918, as it successfully applied novel aggressive maneuvers to overcome the Allied defensive tactics based on trench warfare. Had Americans soldiers failed to appear on the battlefield, it is quite likely that the Allied too would have faced a Caporetto-style defeat.[15] The prospect of victory in the spring of 1918 turned to certainty of defeat by mid-summer. It was an unbelievable reversal of fortunes, and most people did not comprehend what had happened. The conservative German generals (whose class had been party to the decision to go to war in 1914) threw in the towel. They did not explain what had happened on the battlefield nor, in all truth, could they have managed to explicate such a momentous reversal.

It was left to the social-democratic Left, who had been quite ambiguous about the war, to accept power after the right had fled, and declare defeat. Friedrich EBERT, the first President of Germany, undertook to “make the inevitable happen.” [16] The Left hated him for squelching revolutionary uprisings; the Right accused him of being the author of the “stab in the back” that brought defeat to the nation.

President Obama is confronted with the same quandary. He must explain to the country that exceptionalism is no longer doable. Like Ebert, he faces a no-win position. Having gained power on a platform of change, he has been forced by circumstances into systematically “cleaning up” past errors, heaping on himself scorn and blame for doing so. He persists nevertheless. A few days ago, Obama chose to liquidate 50 years of anti-Castrist policies. This step testifies to his understanding that the country must foremost free itself of its ideological past. He is willing to make the personal sacrifices in order to bring it about.

“Yes we can” – President Obama thought he could simply move the country forward. Unlike many idealists, however, he unflinchingly faced the realization that, in order to do so, he had first to unshackle the country from past errors and taboos. President Lincoln faced the same task. Lincoln could at least point to the high principles of the Republic. President Obama has a far more difficult because down-to-earth task: it is ridding the US of the myths of “exceptionalism” and “manifest destiny.”

How might it end? Sometime after Ebert, the Germans chose themselves a “Commander in Chief.” A historian has quipped that we wasted the XXth century in teaching manners to Germans. Meanwhile, President Obama might read with melancholic pride from a book by Darryl PINCKNEY:[17] The history of black people in America is full of paradox, the latest of which is that black people and their allies are now the defenders of the nation-state, having been traditionally the victims and opponents of state power. (…) In 1972 they came close to changing the country – and lost. But we – they – did change the country. A revolution in consciousness won and we ourselves live in our heads a more open and accepting society.”


[1] https://bit.ly/1vk8kwg

[2] https://bit.ly/1q843KY

[3] https://bit.ly/13z4ALA

[4] Mark DANNER (2003): How not to win a war. In: Mark DANNER (2009): Stripping bare the body. Politics, violence, war. Nation Books, New York (p. 372 ff.)

[5] Much has been made of the apparent success of Gen. PETREUS’ “surge.” It was an illusion. Just as the French had done in Algeria in 1871, he co-opted local leaders to serve as stand-ins for American power. Superficially, he succeeded: but in so doing, these sheiks lost legitimacy for a plate of mush. The current developments are witness to their having lost the grip on the populace.

[6] See e.g. my https://wp.me/p81We-K9

[7] As much as one admires George KENNAN’s “containment” policy, one must also recognize that its implementation was deeply flawed. The US having soon veered from political to military containment, it was forced into relentless military adventures to sustain it.

[8] One may quote Sun Tzu: “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” For a contemporary take, one might reflect on the fact that China never joined the nuclear arms race, keeping his arsenal within strict (and reasonable) limits.

[9] https://bit.ly/1vbohA4

[10] Frederick Jackson TURNER (1921): The Frontier in American History. Henry Holt, New York.

[11] Genesis I, 28 and 29: God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

[12] Eric NELSON (2010): The Hebrew Republic. Jewish sources and the transformation of European political thought. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

[13] Polls seem to indicate widespread concern in the US about climate change, and widespread will to “action.” https://bit.ly/1xDPmSD One wonders why politicians would be so adamant in rejecting action, if opinions reflect truly-felt beliefs (this from a Party who espoused Dick Cheney’s 1% rule). My hunch is that there is disconnect between the voters’ rational mind (as expressed at the opinion polls) and their “gut reaction” in the election booth. Politicians sense this, and interpret it as “know and do nothing” (I’ve known about this disconnect ever since I studied the demand for National Parks: everyone wanted them, few, all too few, visited them).

[14] I am comforted in my hunch by the current attempt to define atheism as a “non-religion” with “truth” content (see the blogs by Dawkins, Pigliucci, or Jerry Coyne). Because atheism is an empty category, it is overdetermined by definition (there is only one right solution to an equation, but infinite wrong ones). So being a card-carrying “atheist” is no more meaningful that being an “a-something” of one’s choice.

[15] In an orgy of self-defeatism, Gen. CADORNA, the Italian commander in chief, accused his soldiers of cowardice and desertion. He did so because he had failed to understand the novelty of the Austro-German attack tactics, which were there applied on the western front. See E.g. Piero MELOGANI (1998): Storia politica della grande Guerra 1915-1918. Mondadori, Milano.

[16] https://bit.ly/1wV561T

[17] Darryl PINCKNEY (2014): Blackballed: the Black vote and US democracy. New York Review Books, New York. (pg. 72)

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