In Vox Interview, Obama Sets Limits on What a President Can Accomplish

From Iraq to political polarization, President Obama is more of a realist than candidate Obama was.

President Barack Obama walks toward the Oval Office on the South Lawn of the White House on February 6, 2015 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Feb. 9, 2015, 5:41 a.m.

In his fi­nal two years as pres­id­ent, Barack Obama wants Amer­ic­ans to know he’s con­strained. In an in­ter­view with Vox re­leased Monday, Obama laid out his obstacles. He’s got Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress in­hib­it­ing him from in­creas­ing the fed­er­al min­im­um wage. And over­seas, Obama re­mains du­bi­ous of en­tangling the U.S. in an­oth­er con­flict, even as pres­sure mounts for him to more clearly define his strategy against the Is­lam­ic State.

Obama might be com­mand­er in chief, but his Vox in­ter­view re­veals that in the “fourth quarter” of his pres­id­ency, he has a nar­row view of what is still pos­sible.

On Ir­aq

Per­haps it is not sur­pris­ing that a man who cam­paigned to end the con­flict in Ir­aq in 2008 re­mains skep­tic­al of reen­ga­ging, even as IS­IS mil­it­ants stake their claim on ter­rit­ory there. In his in­ter­view with Vox, however, Pres­id­ent Obama re­mained clear that he would not re­deploy sig­ni­fic­ant num­bers of U.S. troops to Ir­aq to stop the es­cal­a­tion of vi­ol­ence there. That job, he ar­gued, be­longs to the Ir­aqi people.

“I have the au­thor­ity as com­mand­er in chief to send back 200,000 Amer­ic­ans to re­oc­cupy Ir­aq. I think that’d be ter­rible for the coun­try. I don’t think it’d be pro­duct­ive for Ir­aq,” Obama told Vox‘s Mat­thew Yglesi­as. “What we’ve learned in Ir­aq is, you can keep a lid on those sec­tari­an is­sues as long as we’ve got the greatest mil­it­ary on Earth there on the ground, but as soon as we leave, which at some point we would, we’d have the same prob­lems again.”

The pres­id­ent ar­gued that while the U.S. might be re­luct­ant to have a strong ground pres­ence in areas where sec­tari­an con­flict has been present for cen­tur­ies, that choice does not have to di­min­ish Amer­ic­an in­flu­ence abroad.

“The real chal­lenge for the coun­try, not just dur­ing my pres­id­ency but in fu­ture pres­id­en­cies, is re­cog­niz­ing that lead­ing does not al­ways mean oc­cupy­ing,” Obama said. “The tempta­tion to think that there’s a quick fix to these prob­lems is usu­ally a tempta­tion to be res­isted.”

On work­ing with coun­tries that have less-than-stel­lar hu­man-rights re­cords

In times of crisis, Obama made it clear, he does not al­ways have the lux­ury of find­ing a fault­less ally to sup­port the U.S. and help achieve its goals. Us­ing the ex­ample of China — a coun­try that has a his­tory of hu­man-rights vi­ol­a­tions — Obama ar­gued that some­times an al­li­ance is es­sen­tial to help achieve glob­al goals like re­du­cing cli­mate change.

“The goal of any good for­eign policy is hav­ing a vis­ion and as­pir­a­tions and ideals, but also re­cog­niz­ing the world as it is, where it is, and fig­ur­ing out, how do you tack to the point where things are bet­ter than they were be­fore?” Obama said. “That doesn’t mean per­fect. It just means it’s bet­ter.

On polit­ic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion

Obama sharply fo­cused his 2008 cam­paign on the prom­ise of re­du­cing par­tis­an­ship and work­ing to­geth­er. What he ex­per­i­enced, after be­ing elec­ted, however, sharply differed from that prom­ise of bi­par­tis­an­ship. Obama ar­gued that the con­flicts he’s en­countered with a GOP-con­trolled Con­gress don’t stop in Wash­ing­ton; polit­ic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion can be loc­al­ized in ger­ry­mandered con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts.

In his in­ter­view, Obama fur­ther con­ceded that, in a me­dia en­vir­on­ment where view­ers and read­ers can seek out out­lets that sat­is­fy their polit­ic­al align­ments, there may be very little a pres­id­ent can do to re­duce par­tis­an­ship.

“The balkan­iz­a­tion of the me­dia means that we just don’t have a com­mon place where we get com­mon facts and a com­mon world­view the way we did 20, 30 years ago. And that just keeps on ac­cel­er­at­ing,” Obama said.

The pres­id­ent offered one piece of guid­ance for the next per­son who enters the White House: Reach out to less tra­di­tion­al forms of me­dia in an ef­fort to break through the di­vide. He also sug­ges­ted that there be less “routine use of the fili­buster” — an in­ter­est­ing state­ment giv­en that Demo­crats in the Sen­ate used the pro­ced­ur­al move three times last week to stop Re­pub­lic­ans from passing a Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment fund­ing bill that would also block Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion on im­mig­ra­tion. The fili­buster will con­tin­ue to be a power­ful tool for Sen­ate Demo­crats over the next two years as they re­main in the minor­ity.

Over­all, however, Obama said polit­ic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion is noth­ing new.

“They’re have been peri­ods in the past where we’ve been pretty po­lar­ized. I think there just wasn’t polling around,” Obama said. “As I re­call, there was a whole Civil War — that was a good ex­ample of po­lar­iz­a­tion that took place.”

On race re­la­tions

In the Vox in­ter­view, Obama said he’s wor­ried about where re­la­tions between minor­it­ies and po­lice stand today, but he said he is op­tim­ist­ic that over time, those con­flicts will be re­solved. While the na­tion­al spot­light has re­cently fo­cused on ra­cial ten­sions in com­munit­ies like Fer­guson, Mo., Obama said he’s seen firsthand ex­amples of di­verse pop­u­la­tions liv­ing in har­mony.

“The key is to make sure that our polit­ics and our politi­cians are tap­ping in­to that bet­ter set of im­pulses rather than our baser fears,” Obama said.

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