It seems an age ago that Barack Obama, after his convincing defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012, began his second term in office. The president had fresh wind in his sails. In his inaugural and State of the Union addresses, he laid out an agenda of gun control before a nation that appeared finally ready for a serious approach to the subject after the horror of the Newtown school shootings. He also addressed immigration and education reform, infrastructure development and repair, and a systemic effort to bring climate change under control — in short, all the unachieved goals of his first term. He spoke hopefully of bipartisan support for these goals and forcefully about Congress’ and the country’s moral obligation toward the victims of Newtown, Conn.
It was all downhill from there.
By March, gun control legislation was dead; the president was unable to get even a watered-down bill to the floor of a Democratically controlled Senate. Immigration reform, an issue even more pressing for Republicans than Democrats considering the GOP’s rout from Hispanic voters in 2012, met a similar fate in the spring. By that time, the Boston Marathon bombings had deflected attention from legislative issues onto the questions of how terrorists had so easily infiltrated the finish line of one of the year’s most popular sporting events and why Russian intelligence warnings about the bombers had been dismissed. This coincided with the continuing Congressional investigation of the assault on the 2012 Libyan consulate in Benghazi, which turned up further security embarrassments for the administration.
The ink on these subjects was not yet dry when Edward Snowden made the first revelations about the massive domestic and international spying operations being carried out by the National Security Agency and other intelligence “services,” which reached exponentially further into the personal lives of virtually every citizen in the land than under any previous administration and threatened to make obsolete not only the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure but also the very concept of privacy. At the same time, the president was forced to acknowledge that he authorized secret, targeted assassinations of American citizens among other people. In a republic informed of its liberties, these events might have triggered mass protests, demonstrations, Congressional investigations and possibly a presidential impeachment. Here, they produced only a worldwide manhunt for Snowden himself and the ugly and indecent spectacle of the world’s military superpower threatening any nation harboring Snowden. This ended, for the time being, at least, with Vladimir Putin granting asylum to Snowden in Russia, an event that torpedoed a Russian-American summit in August.
Snowden and his collaborators continued releasing tranches of new information about NSA spying abroad, which included our closest allies, throughout the summer and into the fall, embarrassing the United States. Another summit with Brazil was a further diplomatic casualty, while the Mexican government, angry at the failure of immigration reform, poked its finger in Uncle Sam’s eye by releasing a notorious drug figure from prison. America’s hemispheric reputation fell to its lowest level in many decades, and it fared little better in Europe and Africa. Meanwhile, a diplomatic initiative to revive talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, announced with much fanfare in the spring, went (predictably) nowhere, and Egypt’s military pointedly ignored Obama’s call for restraint in its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood following its overthrow of Mohammed Morsi’s elected government.
These foreign debacles climaxed with the Syrian crisis of late August and early September, following reports of a massive chemical weapon attack on the suburbs of Damascus by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Without waiting for independent confirmation of the reports or obtaining foreign support, Obama announced his intention to bomb Syrian facilities in reprisal and moved American warships into place. Never since World War II had the United States undertaken a major military operation outside the Western Hemisphere without the support of allies, but when Obama belatedly attempted to cobble together a coalition of the willing, he found himself wholly isolated in the world community. Deeply embarrassed, he turned to Congress for support, though despite concessions to Republican warhawks, he could not extract even the most general statement of support from either chamber. Perhaps no chief executive in our history had ever stood so nakedly exposed before both a domestic and international audience. Obama had literally nowhere to turn.
It was Putin, Obama’s bete noire, who offered him a fig leaf in the form of a proposal to destroy Assad’s chemical stockpile under international supervision. Obama accepted with alacrity, if not particularly good grace. Assad crowed that he had forced the U.S. Navy to back down. No sooner had this historic fiasco moved to the back pages, however, when the federal government was forced into a 16-day shutdown by a cabal of Tea Party Republicans determined to scuttle implementation of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. This tactic was coupled with a threatened and very narrowly averted default on the national debt.
The world watched this spectacle with a mixture of fascination, horror and disgust as it had watched the revelation of an American Big Brother apparently intent on creating a universal surveillance network a few months earlier and ready to fire on the hapless citizens of a beleaguered nation only weeks before. This time, the stakes were a possible global depression and the collapse of the monetary regime that had anchored the international banking system since the end of World War II. The 12th-hour deal that averted this merely postponed a similar reckoning until the new year, solving nothing in an American political crisis unprecedented since the Civil War and fought over largely the same issue: the resolve of a minority to nullify duly enacted statutes and overturn the statutory authority of the federal government.
A side effect of this imbroglio may be the most lasting one of all. The president was forced by the shutdown to cancel a scheduled trip to East Asia, leaving the field at a major international conference to our chief strategic rival: the Chinese. This negated the most significant diplomatic reorientation of the Obama presidency — the attempt to extricate American power from the morass of the Middle East and to confront the rising regional hegemony of China. On all fronts, then — from the Americas to Europe, Africa and Asia — the United States found itself isolated, rejected or simply unrepresented.
And the year’s still got two more months to go.
If there was any silver lining for Obama in the shutdown-and-default crisis, it was in distracting attention from the disastrous rollout of the new health care exchanges. What the next news cycle will bring is anybody’s guess, but it’s unlikely to bear any glad tidings for Obama. With more than three years to go, his presidency appears at this point dead in the water. There are no doubt many structural reasons for our national impasse, but the style and personality of the current president must bear a significant share of responsibility. Watching the country lurch unguided from gridlock to deadlock, Obama has often reminded me of a man passively observing an approaching train wreck from the sidelines and only blowing his penny whistle when the cars have crashed. It’s no way to govern, but it seems to be the only style he has.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].