There is a fundamental concept in most academic work on the Presidency that the one job with which most Presidents are the least acquainted, which occupy the greatest percentage of their time, and which is the most difficult at which to succeed is the role of president as chief diplomat. After four and half years of Obama Administrations, it is clear that President Obama did and does know much about international affairs and the substantive issues of U.S. foreign policy, but he has demonstrated little ability to conduct effectively the diplomatic affairs of the United States on a global stage. To be clear, as is the case on domestic issues, President Obama exudes a profound sense of concern about the various international issues and world crises. He also understands the details of what is involved in these questions. His problem—which is becoming more disturbing as he continues in office—is that he has not really learned how to conduct U.S. foreign relations. .
(In previous posts there have numerous occasions to discuss Obama’s very mixed record of leadership domestically, particularly vis-à-vis a very confrontational Congress; his ineffective use of the bully pulpit.)
President Obama proved himself to be a remarkable campaigner; twice in two very different campaigns. As he did when he was in Israel in March and whenever and wherever he travels, Obama can turn on the campaign machine and charm international crowds and publics the same way he did so effectively at home on the stump; especially given the speaking talent he demonstrated in the election campaigns. Obama’s problem is foreign policy decision making.
The President seems unable to develop a clear direction for U.S. policy. He tries to constantly balance all his various options and does not want to offend any of various advocates. He demonstrates too much interest in being a proper, effective lawyer; always wanting to make one more move or take one more step to win his case for his client. Similarly, as he is unable to develop a consistent direction between human rights advocates and interventionists, Obama procrastinates. The entire Middle East policy of the Obama Administration from the very beginning of the Arab Spring, two and a half years ago, has been fraught with precisely these types of failures. Getting a U.S.-Russian arms reduction agreement is valuable and constructive as is increased economic cooperation among the G-8 countries, but these are not the tough challenges inherent in U.S. foreign policy.
As public opinion surveys just released indicate the American public is becoming less enchanted with his general performance in office, specifically in light of the spate of recent scandals that have emerged in Washington. Ultimately, successfully getting Bin-Laden and passing the Affordable Health Care Act may not be enough of a record to give Obama the shine he is seeking in history. Bill Clinton even is trying to teach him, but it may well be too late for him to become an effective Chief Diplomat.