Many Americans were glad to see Mr. Scott Brown, a Republican, elected to the U.S. Senate last Tuesday in Massachusetts, especially since the seat he won has traditionally been held by a Democrat — most recently the late Edward Kennedy. Mr. Brown’s victory, while certainly a fillip for the GOP, is the product of rising voter discontent with the Democratic Party. To rate it as a decisive judgment of U.S. President Barack Obama’s presidency would be a stretch.
For the most part, Mr. Brown’s victory reflects domestic, if not local, political concerns. He was a very attractive candidate and his opponent ran an appalling campaign. While the main issues for voters were parochial in nature, there was nevertheless a sense of frustration and concern that says a lot about Mr. Obama’s first year in office.
Massachusetts voters were animated by the fear that their country is headed in the wrong direction. They worry about high unemployment, the prospect of a jobless recovery and swelling government debt. There is little appreciation of the Obama administration’s quick action to staunch the hemorrhaging of the U.S. economy to create a floor for the the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. While economists have applauded Mr. Obama’s economic policies, in particular the stimulus packages that he pushed through Congress, he has gotten little credit from voters for keeping a bad situation from getting worse.
Instead, they are quick to fault a government that has seemingly bent — again — to the will of Wall Street. Bankers are receiving obscene bonuses while unemployment remains in double digits. There is little indication of changes being made to the financial system that will prevent a repeat of the miscalculations and misbehavior that created the crisis of 2008.
Meanwhile, the expanding reach of the U.S. government has raised fears of unsustainable debt. Americans, like many of the country’s foreign creditors, worry about the cost to the U.S. when it finally faces that crushing burden. But here, U.S. voter concerns and those of America’s trade partners diverge: While many Americans would like Washington to be more aggressive in protecting their jobs, other governments worry that U.S. trade policy will assume a protectionist bent to do so. Indeed, one of the most powerful critiques of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy focuses on the reluctance to be more assertive on trade and to be a more aggressive advocate of free trade.
Another shadow darkening Mr. Obama’s first year is cast by the cloud of disappointment felt by many liberal supporters. While the president gets credit for drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq, his doubling down in Afghanistan is seen by some as a betrayal. The fact that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay continues to operate is another blot on his record.
The liberal critique of the Obama foreign policy record is not likely to be shared by many other nations. His election helped change perceptions of the U.S. around the world. Mr. Obama continues to be popular among foreign publics, even as intellectuals question whether he deserves the acclaim he gets when he travels. Future historians may well view his Prague speech as a turning point in efforts to promote global nuclear disarmament. He has tried to reinvigorate arms talks with Russia and continues to focus on creating a world that is less threatened by weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Obama has, to the consternation of defense hawks in the U.S., reached out to many of his country’s adversaries and tried to find compromises. Those efforts have born little fruit to date — the standoffs with Iran and North Korea continue — but it is not for lack of effort by the U.S. administration. On a wide range of issues, Mr. Obama has embraced pragmatism and a realistic outlook that offers all countries willing to work together on shared concerns a chance to contribute. Thus far, Mr. Obama has not had to show his teeth, but after a year in office, it may be time to demonstrate his toughness.
One key to his success will be his ability to focus on issues. Remarkably, for a president who took office with a powerful mandate and a commanding majority in both houses of Congress, Mr. Obama is perceived as weak domestically. Supporters worry that he cannot deliver on his promise of change, either substantively or in the way Washington does business. Instead, many expect him to be bogged down in partisan battles. Incredibly, some see the GOP victory in the Massachusetts election as proof that Mr. Obama is already a lame duck — just one year into a four-year term.
There is a wide-ranging domestic and foreign policy agenda that demands the administration’s attention. Yet friends and allies of the U.S. worry that domestic distractions will keep Mr. Obama focused on issues at home. Washington does need to get its house in order; in many respects, that is one of the most important contributions that the U.S. can make to ensure a functioning and effective international system. But that focus must not result in tunnel vision. While one of the lessons of the last year is that the U.S. cannot fix the world’s problems on its own — and that has been true for some time — it is also apparent that U.S. engagement is critical if progress is to be made on those issues.
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