Obama at One: Human, Made Mistakes, Got Some Things Right


This is a guest note by Constanze Stelzenmüller, a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin and former defense and international security editor at the German weekly, Die Zeit. This piece first appeared at the “GMF Blog” of the German Marshall Fund and is part of a larger piece she is preparing for the Brussels Forum paper series.
Constanze.jpgObama, one year on: So he’s human. He made mistakes. But he got the important things right.
BERLIN — One year after taking office, President Obama’s polls have plummeted, unemployment is at 10 percent, the loss of Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat endangers the administration’s health care reforms, and Iran has rejected a deal that would allow it to enrich uranium abroad. All of that is bad news. But this is not the catastrophic bursting of an Obama Bubble. It’s the end of a hyperinflation of expectations. And about time, too.
barack obama d2 twn.jpg“The nation I’m most interested in building is our own,” Obama said in his speech on Afghanistan last December. But his main focus was on domestic policy from the outset, as Americans had wanted. The economy, energy independence, banking, infrastructure, housing, jobs, education, health care, and tackling the effects of climate change, the status of immigrants, and social inequalities: Obama deserves credit for his courage in offering a complete and coherent diagnosis of the problems besetting the country. Nonetheless, even from Over Here in Europe, it is difficult not to conclude that the President and his team underrated the challenges of getting to yes on health care reform and other domestic policy issues: a fractious left wing of the Democratic Party, a wounded Republican Party, a deeply polarized and anxious electorate.
But when Obama took office, the world was on the brink of economic collapse, and could have taken America down with it. Obama’s team (together with the Fed, and building on what the Bush administration had done) led the salvage work: rescuing banks, a $787 billion stimulus package, coordinating the reactions of the G-20, pushing for re-regulation of the international financial markets. A disaster was averted, and the recession was staved off — not just in America.
Against this grimly urgent economic backdrop, Obama’s foreign policy achievements in his first year are actually remarkable. Shaking a bobby’s hand outside 10 Downing Street, bowing to the Japanese emperor, assuring the Muslim world of America’s respect: these were gracious gestures which did a great deal to reestablish his country’s soft power in the world. His speeches re-set standards for public discourse about international affairs to a level of civility and seriousness not seen in a long time.
Obama’s policy of the outstretched hand stands for a doctrine that prefers cooperation over coercion in an increasingly multi-polar world – not out of naïve idealism, but because it husbands resources and asks others to do their share in responding to the world’s challenges. It is also an astute opening move in a carefully-considered strategy. It morally disarms anti-Americanism. It undermines conspiracy theories cooked up by authoritarian elites afraid of their own citizens. It puts unresponsive leaders on the defensive. And, yes, it provides legitimacy for moving beyond cooperation when that offer is rejected. As the President said in Oslo: “Yes, there will be engagement, there will be diplomacy, but there will be consequences when these things fail.” It looks as though Iran might become the first test of the doctrine. Afghanistan, at any rate, proves that this President is not afraid to use hard power when he has to.
Of course, Obama has made mistakes. Some of the issues he has tried to tackle may simply prove intractable even for an American president. But what matters is that he got some key things just right. Even with flaws revealed, he remains one of the most gifted politicians of our age. There are too few leaders of his stature – in America or in Europe, for that matter – to indulge in the luxury of dismissing him now when so much of his work is still undone.
— Constanze Stelzenmüller


11 comments on “Obama at One: Human, Made Mistakes, Got Some Things Right

  1. Mr.Murder says:

    “Spending more than $100 million to help people care for their elderly parents and get support for themselves as well.
    The White House maintained that its imperative still is to create jobs. Unemployment remains in double digits, and the economy is the public’s top concern. Yet Obama said that squeezed families need help in other ways, too: paying for child care, helping out aging parents, saving for retirement, paying off college debt.”
    Okay, a relative had to divorce his wife to retain eligible status for PALCO(home nursing program, changed names and parent company now).
    He could probably score soemthing with the family values crowd by addressing such a concern(DHS item).


  2. TonyForesta says:

    There’s the image and perception management of Obama, and then there is the actual works Obama is responsible for, – and sadly – NOTHING has changed. Obama abandoned the people who elected him, and like every other slithering reptile, – I mean politician – Obama works for the predatorclass and predatorclass Oligarchs exclusively. The people have no voice and absolutely zero representation in the conduct of the government. Words mean nothing. Actions and deeds define the mettle of an individual, and a nation.
    What have we become??


  3. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Well, Paul seems to have completely lost it. As if Constanze’s musings aren’t fantastic enough, now Paul wants us to believe that gopher holes have verandas.


  4. jonst says:

    Yeah, the “..fractious left wing…” caught my attention as well. When employed in this context it is the mating call of the asshole.


  5. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Well, Kotz, you can get to Websters online, its not like you need the actual physical tome anyway.
    And as I am not amused by Obama and Mitchell’s latest display of gelded diplomacy, I could use a little entertainment.
    Why don’t you flop open your extra copy, or sign on to Dictionary.com, and give us one of your infamous essays, dissecting what the Martian lady Constanze Stelzenmüller has to say in her off-planet produced commentary? Its rare indeed when I suspect that your analysis may well parrallel my own, but in this case I think that both of our olfactory capabilities may well pick up the same scent.


  6. kotzabasis says:

    Indeed, Norheim, only in the disguise of a kangaroo could Dan have stolen my words, such as “bouleversement,” and jumping with them all over cognitively empty spaces. And only a thoughtless “drone” could have missed the mark that with all his beautiful prose, his finesse of words, and the ancillary blunt ones he ‘stole’ from me, Kervick only manages to fertilize intellectually barren grounds. It’s very much like pouring sparkling champagne into a piss-hole or sending a beautifully written letter to an islamo-fascist and appealing to his better nature to stop all future 9/11s.


  7. Paul Norheim says:

    Rumors, rumors… DonS.
    Off the record, I happen to know that it was actually Dan Kervick who stole the
    dictionary from Kotz’s veranda one night several months ago, disguised as a kangaroo.
    Just ask Dan to write a typical Kotzabasis comment, and you’ll see who it was that
    managed to escape into the desert with that book, while Kotz – who’s been preparing
    himself for this moment since 9/11, and who knows very well how to distinguish between a
    kangaroo and an islamo-fascist even in the middle of the night – desperately tried to
    fire his home made anti-terrorist drone with a Chinese made remote control.


  8. DonS says:

    No, I think Paul N as Kotz dictionary on permanent loan, although I think he keeps it hermetically sealed.


  9. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “There is an awful lot to wrestle with in this hagiographic piece”
    Oh shit! Don has gone and stolen Kotz’s dictionary!!!


  10. DonS says:

    There is an awful lot to wrestle with in this hagiographic piece. But the one thing that immediately jumps out at me is the attribution, in part, of responsibilty for failed domestic proposals to a “fractious left wing of the Democratic party”.
    This so far misses the mark, or I should say toes the line of the RW conventional wisdom that endorses the national sport of beating up on the DFH. Firstly of course, Obama’s commitment to proposals has been tepid at best, and acquiescent to corporate establishment thinking to a degree that has undermined much of the value, say, of any health care legislation now possible.
    Further, the more serious misreading, or misunderstanding — or intentional misleading — encompassed in the above quote blaming the “fractious left wing” shows a total ignorance of the actual political tectonics that rendered the ‘left’ powerless regardless of whether they were “fractious” or not. Obama’s ‘agenda’ was so undercut, compromised, marginalized, by repubs and blue dog dems from the beginning that proposals never reached the point where the ‘left’ was even a factor.
    The writer seems far out of sync with the emerging recognition that Obama has not just underperformed as a president with all the tools available to a president with huge majorities in the congress, but has not demonstrated commitment and skill commensurate with the political landscape.
    What the writer calls “gracious gestures” in the international sphere, we are more prone now to see as playing softball, a trait that seems to parallel his domestic performance. Glorifying all of that touchy feely outreach in foreign affairs, impressive as it is in a certain sense, reinforces the sick feeling many of us now get that, in foreign and domestic affairs, we are listening to fine speeches, absorbing warm fuzzy thoughts , but are left waiting at the altar when it comes to action. I.e., Optics.
    Not that using fine, inclusive words, in anyway validates the assumption that Obama has a balanced approach that includes the ratcheting up of more war at the other end of the spectrum
    Ms. Stelzenmuller seems to endorse Mr. Obama’s use of or acquiescence to hard power in situations which are nowhere universally approved, eg., Afghanistan, Iran, in the US. This, to me, is telling for interpreting the general slant of the whole article. Overall, I’m tempted to say that it is more bromide than incisive observation.


  11. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “Shaking a bobby’s hand outside 10 Downing Street, bowing to the Japanese emperor, assuring the Muslim world of America’s respect: these were gracious gestures which did a great deal to reestablish his country’s soft power in the world. His speeches re-set standards for public discourse about international affairs to a level of civility and seriousness not seen in a long time”
    Of course, we can’t expect Constanze to note Obama’s complete abandonment of the “plight of the Palestinians”, or draw attention to Netanyhu’s boot sticking out of Obama’s ass.
    “Yes, there will be engagement, there will be diplomacy, but there will be consequences when these things fail.”
    No one knows this better, or more painfully, than the Palestinians whom Obama has betrayed as surely as he has betrayed the citizens here, who worked so hard to put him in office.
    So, Constanze considers Obama’s rhetoric to be his crowning achievement thus far. I couldn’t agree more.


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