Is President Obama Struggling To Set The Agenda?

Is President Obama Struggling To Set The Agenda?

Paul Lewis

Release Date

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


For six months, ever since Barack Obama used his State of the Union speech to declare that if necessary he would bypass obstructionist Republicans in Congress and use his executive authority to act alone, critics have bemoaned the lack of any follow-up. Obama has seemed stuck, dithering over the appropriate response to the Ukraine crisis and only using his executive powers in a limited way to enact change on the domestic front.

Until, that is, 10 days ago, when a newly emboldened Obama sprang into action, giving Washington a lesson in the perils of a go-it-alone presidency.

In the space of a few days, he launched a new foreign policy doctrine, dispatched an embattled secretary of veterans' affairs, secured the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier in Taliban captivity whom he swapped for five Guantánamo Bay detainees, and unveiled historic cuts to pollution.

That probably makes the past fortnight the most eventful of Obama's second term. But it has also been one of his most calamitous. All four steps were intended to show a president taking control of the agenda. Yet each move either backfired or provided ammunition to critics constructing a narrative of a White House under siege.

Professor Stephen Wayne, an expert on the American presidency from Georgetown University, says it is "par for the course" for presidents in their second term to stumble then hunker down in the White House. In recent times, he says, only Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have bucked that trend.

But the 44th president appears especially isolated, as though he has given up trying to forge alliances on Capitol Hill. "President Obama has a lot of strong points, but social interaction with people he doesn't know is not one of them," says Wayne. "He's rational, he's information-driven, he's very smart. But he's a loner."

And Obama is no longer just unpopular among Republicans. Democrats now fear his reputation – as a partisan, remote chief executive whose approval ratings have been languishing below 50% – will damage their prospects ahead of November's midterm elections. "This is the guy who used to be the king of winning elections," a top Democrat says, on condition of anonymity. "Now he has become our millstone."

Obama's difficult two weeks began with his address to cadets at the US military academy at West Point, which was billed as a key foreign policy speech.

The president's first term is remembered for his decision to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Hawks argue the 18 months of Obama's second stint have shown him as timid abroad – pulling back from intervention in Syria, flinching from a tough response to Russia's aggression in Ukraine, and naively pursuing a negotiated nuclear settlement with Iran.

The West Point address was to be Obama's riposte: an attempt to frame his philosophy for foreign affairs, carving out a middle ground between George W Bush's military aggression and the far more isolationist policy now demanded by America's war-weary public.

Obama's message of soft power over military prowess got a predictably frosty reception from graduating cadets. Neither did the speech go down well with the foreign policy fraternity, receiving poor reviews from both left and right.There was a feeling Obama might have done better replacing his cerebral justification with the shorthand version his aides briefed to reporters: "Don't do stupid shit."

The New York Times said the speech "did not match the hype, was largely uninspiring, lacked strategic sweep and is unlikely to quiet his detractors". The Wall Street Journal compared Obama's attempt to assemble a coherent foreign policy agenda to "Tom Hanks trying to survive in Cast Away: whatever's left from the wreckage will have to do".

The morning of the speech, White House officials were working hard to manage another slow-developing shipwreck: the scandal over healthcare provision for war veterans, which had been building for weeks.

The Department of Veterans Affairs manages an enormous network of hospitals and medical facilities to provide health cover to more Americans than any other health organisation, public or private. In America, care for veterans is sacrosanct, but the system is straining at the seams, unable to cope with Vietnam veterans entering old age as well as the influx of returning troops from the Iraq and Afghan wars.

What began as a story about a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona massaging its figures to conceal the length of waiting lists – and claims that as many as 40 veterans may have died while waiting for care – quickly spiralled.

Two inquiries concluded the cover-up was in fact systemic, affecting VA hospitals across the country, and led to a clamour in Congress for the resignation of Obama's secretary for veterans' affairs, Eric Shinseki.

Obama did not want to let him go but, two days after his West Point speech, the president relented and agreed to Shinseki's departure. Obama looked like a president whose hand had been forced. By then at least 116 members of Congress had called for Shinseki's resignation, 35 of them Democrats.

The VA scandal stung because it was another example of a failure of bureaucracy – under the stewardship of a president who famously promised to "rebuild people's faith in the institution of government".

Shinseki was the second cabinet-level official in the administration to resign in two months. The first was Kathleen Sebelius, the health secretary who presided over the botched rollout of the healthcare website that was the linchpin of "Obamacare", the president's health reforms.

She at least was allowed to stay on for several months to fix the problem, and succeeded in turning around the rollout to the point that more than 8 million people signed up for health plans under the exchanges – more than the administration had hoped.

Obama's supporters maintain that the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2009, will be remembered as the signature achievement of his first term. But they concede he lacks a similar landmark in his second. The comprehensive immigration reform he and his backers in the Senate sought to achieve is now dead.

The search for another agenda-setting intervention– something on the scale of Obamacare that would not require congressional support – goes some way to explaining why the president chose to take decisive action on climate change.

Obama had already tried and failed, in 2010, to get a climate change bill through Congress. On Monday, in the first major example of the executive action he threatened to wield at the State of the Union, his administration unveiled historic environment rules, imposing cuts from power plants by 30% by 2030.

The rules, formally announced by the Environmental Protection Agency, marked the first time any US president has moved to regulate carbon pollution from power stations. They infuriated Republicans, the business lobby and a handful of Democrats campaigning for election in emissions-heavy states.

But the cuts were a courageous move, probably in step with an emerging public belief that sacrifices are necessary over carbon emissions. Neera Tanden, president of the thinktank Centre for American Progress, says it was an example of a decision Obama knew he needed to take quickly, conscious that states needed time to implement the rules before his term ends in 2016. The climate change rules, Tanden says, will be "the most far-reaching executive action the president will take in his presidency".

How then did the White House allow such a pivotal moment to be sandwiched between the Shinseki resignation and the storm over the release of Bergdahl?

Privately, one administration official admits the White House was caught "entirely off-guard" by the Bergdahl affair, failing to anticipate the response to the release of five Taliban fighters from Guantánamo Bay. The administration failed to predict how quickly Republicans would turn against a 28-year-old soldier who walked off his remote Afghan posting in 2009 and had been described as a deserter by some ex-members of his platoon.

Obama's decision to announce the prisoner exchange last Saturday in the Rose Garden, flanked by Bergdahl's father, Bob – a vocal critic of the war effort – was considered a mistake. So, too, was the claim by Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, that Bergdahl had served with "honour and distinction". The official concedes both were unforced errors – and "bad optics". In Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike are questioning the wisdom and legality of a prisoner swap they say could allow dangerous Taliban fighters to return to the battlefield.

But it was the complaint that Obama had, once again, bypassed Congress to authorise the trade that has been most telling. The White House did not dispute that Obama was technically required to notify Congress 30 days prior to the release from Guantánamo. It simply said there was a risk to Bergdahl's life that justified side-stepping the law.

It was this controversy, more than any other, that dogged Obama on his European tour last week. Throughout, he seemed unperturbed. "We saw an opportunity and we seized it," Obama said when asked about Bergdahl's release. "And I make no apologies for that."

Source; Guardian


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