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Amitai Etzioni Headshot

Obama: Flailing

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If you understand where President Obama is headed in his second term, pray send me an email. I like him, wish him Godspeed, and might well support where he is going -- if I could just figure out where that is.

I thought I got it during the inaugural speech. The president ran up the flag pole one, and only one, policy: climate change. As the New York Times reported, Obama's "Speech Gives Climate Goals Center Stage." I did not think it was an ideal choice, as the GOP, in collaboration with conservative Democrats, is most unlikely to support much action on this front, and there are sharp limits on what the president can do via executive order. Further, there is little we can do without global cooperation, and moving aggressively on this front might weaken the anemic economic recovery. But it is a worthy purpose, so I was all ready to suit up and see how one could help. However, this is more or less the last I heard on the subject from the president.

Next came the State of the Union. Climate change was barely mentioned. Instead, we got a long list of initiatives, some miniscule, some idealistic, and a very strong emotional pitch -- for gun control. This one really got me excited because I believe that greater restrictions on guns would save numerous lives, including those of children. Recently, however, this policy was left to Vice President Biden, a sure sign that the president has moved on. The president -- last week -- was out campaigning to promote his way of balancing the budget. So we are talking, again, about how much to cut entitlements (a very bad idea) and other government spending in order to get the Republicans to agree to close some loopholes in the tax code. The fact that we need to invest more in education, science, and critical infrastructure, all of which the president previously championed for very good reasons -- but which require more government outlays -- is becoming, again, an afterthought.

During his reelection campaign, the president evoked a vision I found very compelling. I call it the fair society, one in which -- as he put it -- "everyone gets a fair shot... everyone does their fair share, [and] everyone plays by the same rules." It was a theme into which one could fold many other specific policies that we must promote, including reducing inequality, ensuring that there are jobs for all, and creating a society that does not discriminate and where special interests at kept at bay. However, the post-election Obama turned very prosaic. I miss the visionary one.

The president is consistently sticking to his theme that the time has come for nation-building at home. I do not recall an inaugural address or a State of the Union in which foreign policy was mentioned as little as this time around. As Slate's Fred Kaplan put it, Obama, in his State of the Union address, "barely mentioned foreign and defense policy until 54 minutes after he walked into the chamber -- and even drew more of a vague sketch than a policy." I wonder if Syria, Iran, Pakistan, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the resurgent al Qaeda will play ball. I fear they will force the president's hand to be more mindful of what is happening out there.

Maybe it is just a post-election slump or a changing of the guard in the White House. Maybe others have divined where Obama is taking us. If you have, do your good deed for the week and let the rest of us know.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World, published by Transaction. For more on Hot Spots, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SlZd2Lnj1KA

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