Days before Vladimir Putin's troops invaded Ukraine, National Security Adviser Susan Rice dismissed suggestions that Russia was about to pounce. "It's in nobody's interest," she said. Days later, President Obama declared the invasion to be illegal. "In 2014," he said, "we are well beyond the days when borders can be drawn over the heads of democratic leaders."
Two things strike me about those quotes. First, they were right. From the viewpoint of the United States and its allies, invading Crimea made no sense, legally or strategically. Second, it didn't matter: Putin plays by his own set of rules, and it's dangerously naive not to realize that.
Ukraine is illustrative of a flaw in Obama's worldview that consistently undermines his agenda, both foreign and domestic. He thinks being right is good enough. From fights with Congress over the federal budget and his nominations, to gun control, immigration reform, health care, and Syria, the president displays tunnel-vision conviction, an almost blinding righteousness. I'm right. They're wrong. Why isn't that enough?
With such certitude, Obama finds it hard to see why anybody would oppose him, which makes it almost impossible to earn new allies. He's also slow to realize when some fault lies with him. The result is Obama's legacy of "Right, but …" moments.
Americans don't favor military action in Syria and can't stomach genocide. That may be right, but wavering on a "red line" and dithering on a decision projected weakness. Months later, Syria is flouting chemical-weapons deadlines imposed in the deal that Obama cut via Russia.
Punishing a lawyer for the crimes committed by a client defies sacred constitutional principles. That may be right, but perhaps there was another qualified candidate to be the nation's top civil-rights enforcer beside Debo Adegbile, who years ago represented a cop killer. If Adegbile was the most qualified candidate, the White House didn't work hard enough and long enough to stiffen the spine of Democratic senators. Insisting on a Senate vote and then losing sets a precedent that defense lawyers can be disqualified for their client's actions. Obama was right on the merits, wrong on the rest.
Most Americans support background checks on guns. Polls show that Obama was right, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown shootings, but he underestimated the strength of the gun lobby and couldn't build a coalition in Congress. Obama himself is frustrated with the inability to translate into legislative successes his campaign's brilliance at mobilizing people to vote. If he had managed to make that leap, gun control might have been the initial beneficiary.
Most Americans support universal health care and want government to help solve big problems like that. He may be right, but Obama's efforts to fold some Republicans into the health reform process were halfhearted, and he happily signed a partisan bill. He's right that Republicans are stubbornly invested in the law's failure, but its rocky implementation is his fault, not theirs.
Most Americans want a "Grand Bargain" on the budget that both raises revenue and restrains entitlements. He's right about that and deserves credit for offering modest entitlement reform, but Obama has blown at least two chances to seize a big deal with the GOP—immediately after his reelection, when he grabbed tax increases outside a broader bargain, and in the spring of 2013, when the GOP signaled its willingness to raise revenue under the guise of tax reform.
Immigration reform is a moral, political, and economic imperative. He's right about that, and the GOP is wrong (if not suicidal) to ignore the problem, but Obama will be judged harshly if he leaves office without the significant changes he promised to the Hispanic community.
Historians score presidents based on what they accomplish with the allies, the enemies, and the circumstances dealt to them. This will not be known as the Era of Republican Obstruction. We are not at the dawn of the Russian Century. Right or wrong, it's on Obama—and that should be enough.