When Barack Obama became president, surveys showed most people thought the United States was going in the wrong direction. In his sixth year in office, that opinion is held by even more Americans.
Obama was expected to make a difference. At the outset, a strong majority thought the president was doing well. Now only two out of five voters think he is doing a good job.
Americans have become pessimists. Politics are almost hopelessly divided. The president’s health care initiative is in trouble and under constant attack. Russia’s takeover of Crimea suggests the United States is no longer the world power it was.
People hold little hope of improvement. A majority would toss out the entire Congress if it could. Obama seemed politically landlocked. The United States cannot stop Russia from shaking up the post-Cold War world.
Maybe nothing can be done. If the president does not abandon his restrained, almost reclusive, approach, the final two years of his presidency may be nothing more than the waiting room for the next administration.
There are signs of change. Though not being able to use force, Obama has taken a clear leadership position on Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
Russia acts like its reduced economic links with Europe and North America do not bother it. Obama maintains its policy of trying to regain influence over parts of the former Soviet Union will leave it with less influence in the world.
Some analysts have suggested the aggressive development of renewable energy in the United States could provide a strong American export market in Europe, enabling it to pull away from its dependence on Russian oil and gas. The U.S. might also export natural gas.
Obama should expand the American energy policy debate about proposals ranging from the Keystone XL pipeline to wind power to include geo-political issues. Drastically cutting Russia’s income by reducing Europe’s energy dependence on it, and strengthening trans-Atlantic ties are worthwhile energy policy goals.
Unfortunately, the hope for a less confrontational world order, embodied in Obama’s Nobel Prize, has not been fully realized and has contributed to the sense of discomfort felt today.
While neither China nor Russia is an ideological adversary, as the Communists were, they are both intent on expansion. The United States has to understand better their demands and concerns, but it should help countries in their paths to gain their own strength and stability.
Waning American influence in the world may be caused less by limited military options than from the apparent inability of our national government to function. That communicates weakness.
Whether Obama has any chance of success may be less important than that he tries. More than making occasional campaign-like speeches, he needs to project an image less laid back and vigorously and persistently to push his case with Congress, now almost a foreign country to him.
The major issue domestically is the Affordable Care Act. Because of the highly partisan way Congress adopted it, the resulting law has created confusion and undermined confidence in a positive plan to extend health care coverage to all.
The ACA must be substantially revised, while protecting its promise of nearly universal health insurance and other improvements. Obama should offer to work now with Republicans and Democrats to simplify it and to allow for a more gradual phase-in of the new version.
Of course, the GOP could try to repeal the ACA the minute such negotiations begin, claiming that even Obama admits it’s bad. The president needs to take that risk.
On immigration reform, both parties agree on the basis for a new national policy. Obama has shown Republicans he is willing to deport illegal immigrants. The debate has deteriorated into a political squabble unworthy of the importance of the issue.
House Speaker John Boehner says Republicans don’t trust Obama, and the president has let immigration policy slip from his agenda. The president now should convene White House meetings on settling the policy and see if the GOP shows up.
Eavesdropping on Americans also merits immediate attention. Terrorism has made the world a more dangerous place, and more surveillance is justified. But Obama has said that just because we can do something does not mean that we should.
There have been excesses by seemingly uncontrolled intelligence agencies. This week Obama showed leadership by proposing a more limited surveillance policy in which the defense of national freedom would not mean the loss of individual freedom.
Barack Obama needs to lead. This week may show he is ready to take the risks that go along with leadership.