Published: June 1, 2009 By

Cartoon of Obama

CU experts note positives, negatives and a plethora of pitfalls

Just after the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, a wry newspaper headline announced, “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.”

“America’s Finest News Source,” also known as The Onion, was making a joke. But like most jokes, it reflected some truth.

The presidency is never easy. In Obama’s case, the challenges and stakes are particularly high—a collapsing economy, two foreign wars, energy insecurity and global climate change. As he addressed Congress in February, Obama struck an optimistic chord:

“We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before,” he said.

Fine words. But how well has the president done so far, and what are the chances of his ultimate success? University of Colorado experts in political science, history and international affairs see some encouraging signs, some discouraging signals and a daunting array of yet-to-be resolved challenges.

They weighed those questions during a May 15-16 Alumni College sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and the CU-Boulder Alumni Association.

On questions of domestic priorities, foreign policy and politics in the Obama era, the experts’ report card was mixed.

Some success, many uncertainties

E. Scott AdlerE. Scott Adler, an associate professor of political science, identified some external factors that can help or hinder a president’s success in enacting his legislative agenda.

Presidents have higher success rates early in their terms when the economy is bad, when the president is a skilled legislator and when there is a divided government, he said. In general, presidents’ success rates decline over time, Adler noted.

One practical reason for that decline is the mountain of expiring legislation that must be renewed lest “popular statutes and programs go away,” Adler said.

“The reality is Congress procrastinates just like the rest of us,” he added. “It’s a lot more fun spending your time working on juicy political items, like reforming health care … than it is to do compulsory lawmaking.”

Of Obama, “I wouldn’t exactly call him an experienced legislator,” but he has hired many of them.

Obama’s success rate is mixed, Adler said. “We can’t ignore the fact that this has been a very partisan early term. This is probably not a reflection on policy positions of the president. … It’s probably more of a reflection that the Republicans are backed into a corner.”

By vigorously opposing some of Obama’s initiatives, such as the economic stimulus package, Republicans are trying to distinguish themselves from the Democrats, “which of course is what they need to do.”

Despite the media-driven focus on the first 100 days of a presidency, it is too early to tell how things are going, he said. One or two years into his term, there will be more data, particularly on divisive issues such as health-care reform, which, Adler noted, “was the downfall of the early Clinton administration.”

Naïveté on science?

Patricia LimerickPatricia Limerick, a history professor and faculty director of the Center of the American West, sees other looming pitfalls, notably Obama’s promise to “restore science to its rightful place.”

She asked, “What is its rightful place?” Limerick said, “That’s a much more complicated question than it might seem at first glance.”

Lewis and Clark, the early American explorers, had a politicized scientific mission, she said. Thomas Jefferson had very definite ideas about their findings—if they came out right—which would advance his political vision. They were supposed to find a water passage across the United States. “That didn’t work out,” she noted. “The Rockies just said ‘no.’”

Even if the allocations of funding and validation have long dissolved any separation between science and politics, there has been a lot of variation in the integrity and forthrightness with which that loss of separation has been acknowledged, she said.

Instead of “depoliticizing science,” Limerick said, the Obama team is proposing “science guided by different politics.” That does not mean, she emphasized, that the scientists will distort or misrepresent their findings; it simply means that there will still be a very complicated, multi-layered process by which those findings are interpreted and acted on by the executive and legislative branches.

Limerick cited Jane Lubchenco, a distinguished professor of zoology at Oregon State University whom Obama appointed to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Lubchenco has said that NOAA’s climate models should be used to help determine where to put new wind farms.

“But the notion of (climate models) providing sufficient certainty that they can help us site wind farms, without any friction or conflict with people who prefer their landscapes unobstructed and open to the eye, is an instance where scientific intention edges closer to hope than reason,” Limerick said.

She also noted the difficulty in applying scientific findings to public policy. Ecological scientists and climate scientists, for instance, might have very different views of the need to put a concentrating solar-power plant in the remote Arizona desert.

Such a conflict would pose environmentalists favoring open land and ecosystems against those favoring renewable energy. “And the scientists who are going into that fray? Uh oh,” Limerick quipped.

Meanwhile, the challenges Obama faces abroad are diffuse and significant, other experts said.

New approach to Pakistan

Lucy ChesterLucy Chester, an assistant professor of history and international affairs, said Pakistan poses a particular challenge. Unless major changes occur, that nation “is currently spiraling downward toward state failure,” she said.

Pakistan is failing to deliver basic goods and services such as schools or to ensure basic security for its citizens, she said.

In recent months, the Taliban, the Islamist extremists who formerly controlled Afghanistan, have launched attacks and seized areas of northern Pakistan, which has not cracked down on such militants to the extent the West would like. One reason, Chester argued, is that Pakistan has a deep fear of India. The militants in Afghanistan and the disputed territory of Kashmir may be seen by Pakistan as a means of guarding against the Indians.

In March, Obama announced that he was replacing the Bush administration’s Afghanistan policy with one focused on that troubled country and its neighbor, Pakistan. The “AfPak” policy aims to “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” Al-Qaida is the terrorist group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

Chester praised the AfPak initiative. “It’s useful … to move us away from this focus on the Indo-Pakistani relationship as center of all diplomatic efforts.”

Success? A long shot

Mike Kanner, a political science lecturer and former U.S. Army officer, said Obama, like most presidents, lacks foreign-policy experience. Kanner also argued that Obama’s foreign policy does not differ substantially from that of George W. Bush. Kanner said this continuity was a good thing, as foreign leaders find change unsettling.

Calling himself “an incurable pessimist,” Kanner said Obama’s AfPak initiative underscored potential quagmires.

The success of the Pakistan focus depends on key factors, including the support of foreign countries and the American people. Increasing support from the international community is “very unlikely to occur,” Kanner said.

American support of the escalation, which involves the deployment of about 17,000 more troops, is related to the mission’s success, Kanner said, noting the rough terrain in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “If you think it’s hard to fight in the city, try the mountains.”

That difficulty will mean higher fatalities, which will erode support for the war, Kanner said. That public erosion of support has implications for the next presidential election. “Looking at the election in 2012, you either have to have a great economy or a great experience in the war.”

With respect to nuclear weapons, Obama has stated his desire to do away with all of them. “Not gonna happen,” Kanner said. “Nuclear weapons are a game-changer. … They provide you security and a seat at the table” in international negotiations.

Kanner ticked off a list of other delicate international negotiations, including those involving Israel and Palestine, North Korea, energy security and Iran. “All of this has to be done while maintaining domestic support.”

Baggage in Latin America

Francisco BarbosaFrancisco Barbosa, an assistant professor of modern Latin American history, emphasized the United States’ record of supporting anti-communist despots. The rise of leftist regimes in Venezuela, for instance, can be traced to U.S. support for right-wing dictatorships in Guatemala, Chile and elsewhere.

“This is the historical backdrop the Obama administration faces,” Barbosa said. Now, with free-trade agreements, there’s a new challenge. “Policies that do not benefit the middle class have the effect of undermining democracy,” he said.

Further, he said, the policies that have benefitted U.S. companies abroad have pushed people toward immigration, legal and not, into the United States.

Additionally, the U.S. “war on drugs” has failed because it focused on the supply rather than the demand.

The question is whether Obama will change course, and Barbosa believes there are signs that he will. The change in relations with Cuba, to which the president made an overture, is “huge,” Barbosa said. “There’s no way to overstate it.”

Normalization of relations with Cuba could help improve relationships in Latin America, he said.

Second, Obama’s call for comprehensive immigration is a positive sign, Barbosa said. Drug-war bilateralism with Mexico and other nations, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has encouraged, could also pay off, he said.

Gargantuan obstacles

While a president may inspire hope for marked change, many things make the talk easier than the walk. That’s one conclusion of Steve Chan, a professor of political science. “The comment that we keep in mind is that the president does not have the luxury of starting with a clean slate,” Chan said. Each president, for instance, must deal with problems left over from the previous administration.

One president can make a difference but that difference is marginal, Chan argued. “They are prisoners of circumstances. … When we write report cards (about presidencies), we need to be aware of how difficult the assignment is.”

In Obama’s case, the circumstances are discouraging, he said, delving into an abbreviated history of the United States’ relationship with the world. After World War II, he said, America and its allies forged a “grand bargain.”

The deal was that America would defend its allies against Soviet and Chinese aggression. “Another term of this agreement was that we would be the locomotive of global economic growth.” Third, the dollar would become the standard currency. “That is huge, because businesspeople can count on the value of their business deals,” Chan said.

In exchange for all this, the rest of the world agreed to give the United States leeway. It agreed not to ask hard questions about how America managed its political economy, to “have our own credit card and to increase our credit limit when we ran out of money,” Chan said. “They agreed to let us do things that any other country could not do.”

But times are changing. “Reality has caught up,” Chan said. “That grand bargain is no longer sustainable.”

The Germans, French and Italians no longer need the United States to defend them from the Soviets or from China. Meanwhile, American consumers are swimming in debt, and, “America is no longer, economically speaking, the center of gravity.” The Euro and the yen now compete with the dollar.

“Obama seems to have been dealt a hand that is very hard to play,” Chan said.

Other foreign challenges

William WeiWilliam Wei, a professor of history and an expert on China, noted his distaste for the Chinese government but his admiration for the Chinese people, who are the oldest civilization in history.

“There will always be a China.”

Wei praised Obama’s nomination of Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican, to be the U.S. ambassador to China. As a young man, Huntsman was a Mormon missionary to Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

Wei argued that the U.S.-Chinese relationship is critically important, for environmental, economic and political reasons. The United States and China are the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, for instance.

“We are interdependent,” Wei said. “They sell. We buy. We need to engage in extensive dialogue.”

Wei noted the Tiananman Square massacre, whose 20th anniversary the Chinese government responded to by barring foreign journalists from the square, by ringing the area with police and by squelching protest.

“We have many differences, but we can’t let them get in the way of dialogue,” Wei said. Because of the strength of its ideals and values, America can hold its own in a relationship with China,” Wei said. “China will change. We need to be prepared to work with China.”

China is seen as one key to stopping the genocide in Sudan, which sells oil to China. Aysegul Aydin, an assistant professor of political science, is an expert on civil war and conflict resolution and said that Sudan poses another problem for Obama.

“Why can’t we stop genocide in Sudan? The thing is that we all want it to stop, but we all want someone else to pay for the cost of stopping it,” she said.

Aydin argued that once something is defined as genocide, other countries must intervene. “In U.N. Security Council voting, we mostly abstained on the topic of Sudan. We didn’t want to face the consequences of intervention.”

Wei lamented the occurrence of genocide and the failure of states to do something about it. That inaction “reflects moral bankruptcy,” he said. “I think we should think deep in our hearts about that.”