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Ben Zweifach Headshot

Obama's First Term Has Been a Disappointment. And a Pleasant Surprise.

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We're still months away from most Americans paying any attention to the campaign. Since Newt Gingrich ended his wacky zoo tour, disappointing bereaved vampire bats everywhere, the summer contest has been fairly dull. It will likely be decided by a number of factors the president has little control over, like whether Europe still owns its cafés and tourist attractions in November. (There may not be enough gondola rides and croissants in the world to stabilize the fiscal situation.) But we can't afford to allow externalities to keep us from evaluating the president's first term. Now that the NBA playoffs have ended, it's either that, or melting into a puddle outside.

Political strategists often fixate on "the expectations game," and how a candidate can upend conventional wisdom with a debate performance, or a primary, or a Katie Couric interview. The most peculiar thing about Obama Term I has been its subversion of the electorate's expectations. Barack Obama the president has largely failed where Barack Obama the candidate was meant to succeed, and thrived where he was meant to flounder.

Obama's downside was always supposed to be a kitten-like naiveté when it came to foreign policy. In an otherwise glowing '08 editorial endorsement that makes Jerry Maguire's "You Complete Me" speech look like a bitch-slap, the New York Times conceded that "Mr. Obama would have a learning curve on foreign affairs." He was meant to be soft; unwilling to take the brutal measures that would keep America safe; and, particularly compared to his opponent in McCain, too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief.

The Times endorses Obama in dramatic fashion:

Yet the president has been "fierce," and even Republicans concede that foreign affairs has turned out to be Obama's strength. You wouldn't necessarily call him a hawk, but that's only because hawks have to actually dive-bomb to ground level to kill their prey. Obama's predator drones are more like hawks with scopes mounted on their heads, like the laser-beam-strapped sharks Dr. Evil tries to use on Austin Powers. Al-Qaeda's organization is in shambles, and its leader, of course, decomposing next to fish turds in the Arabian Sea. Obama made the decision to expand the burgeoning fleet of aerial weapons, and they've been a national security miracle, keeping Americans safe, but also out of harms way -- talons unnecessary. On Presidential Priority Number One, therefore, Barack Obama has aced the test.

Detractors will gripe that Obama has allowed Iran to stall as they enrich isotopes beneath the earth. Yes, negotiations have been maddening, but, in reality, the administration has employed a number of tactics to frustrate Tehran, not the least of which has been the creative use of cyber warfare in cahoots with a mysterious, secret ally (I'm guessing it's Sweden). Sanctions are taking their toll, and a critical EU oil embargo still has to go into effect this summer. We may look back on this period and thank the gods for Obama's patient prudence.

The president also doesn't get enough credit for his handling of the Arab Spring. Oftentimes it's not only what a president does, but what he doesn't do: it could have been easy for the U.S. to heavily intervene in Egypt, Tunisia, or even Syria as they countries spiraled into frightening chaos. Many presidents not as fond of acronyms like N.A.T.O. would have sent the marines into Cairo or Damascus, sinking us back into another Middle Eastern quicksand we could not afford. (It isn't that tough to topple autocrats and install puppet regimes -- it's all we did during the Cold War -- but it's risky business.) And when it seemed doable for a reasonable price, Obama tipped the scales against Qaddafi at the U.N. Right-wing pundits can beat their chests at barbeques and bark about "leading from behind" in Libya, but the other phrase for that is sheer efficiency -- a mission accomplished with zero American casualties.

But ironically, the president has been foiled at delivering on his primary pitch from 2008: he has failed at moving the country with his agenda, failed at building compromise, and failed at uniting the nation's political factions. As that same New York Times editorial put it: "We believe he has the will and the ability to forge the broad political consensus that is essential to finding solutions to this nation's problems."

Sheath your sword. I'm aware of the GOP's intransigence. No Congress has been more unwilling, as a rule, to work with an executive, and the Republicans' role in preventing the country from tackling critical issues like climate change, the deficit, and immigration cannot be overlooked. But, to be fair, this is the job Obama signed up for, and he won the country's heart by convincing it that he was different -- special -- in his capacity to bring the country together. That's how an inexperienced senator overtakes a Clintonian juggernaut: he convinces the nation that he can do things other polarizing candidates with the same policies can't. But Change We Can Believe In was never, in that respect, really Change We Should Believe In.

Real leadership isn't a matter of working with those eager to cooperate; it's about finding ways to make them work with you when they are uneager. The Obama White House's greatest failure was that it had no Plan B. It expected the honeymoon others have gained from an electoral landslide; it expected that congressional Republicans would embrace Obama's achievement, or at least honor his mandate with good-faith cooperation. But after the delirious crowds in Grant Park, and after the bright inauguration, when it came time to offer Obama help on his first major piece of legislation -- a plan to get the economy going with a stimulus package, the GOP members looked across the table and basically said, "So what?"

The White House had no answer for the "what if they blow us off?" contingency, and proved inadequate at either effectively exposing the Republican obstruction;or communicating its core message to the American people.

When the stimulus package passed with zero Republican House votes, the mood was set for Obama's first term: a period of steady leadership on the international stage, with unholy domestic discord at home.

So it's been an unexpected few years. How will a referendum play out for an executive whose weaknesses and strengths have turned upside down since he came to power? Tough to say.

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