Obama Handles Russia Like Republicans: Overpromise, Under-Deliver, and Write Off

Democratic ally says of Obama: “He’s just not a natural leader.”

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers speaks at the 2013 Tribal Nations Conference held at the Department of Interior Building on November 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama meet with leaders of 566 Native American tribes earlier in the day at teh White House.
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Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
April 21, 2014, 5:09 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama came to of­fice nurs­ing dreams “of for­ging a new part­ner­ship” with a stub­born rival. When times got tough, he aban­doned the re­la­tion­ship and ad­op­ted dusty zero-sum gain policies of his pre­de­cessors. To al­lies and rivals alike, he looks naïve, weak, and dis­con­nec­ted.

This is the por­trait presen­ted Sunday by Peter Baker in his front-page New York Times story titled, “In Cold War Echo, Obama Strategy Writes Off Putin.” What struck me about the piece is the un­stated par­al­lel between Obama’s hand­ling of Rus­sia and Re­pub­lic­ans, and how in both cases the gap between prom­ise and per­form­ance il­lus­trates a fun­da­ment­al fail­ure of lead­er­ship.

Baker writes:

WASH­ING­TON — Even as the crisis in Ukraine con­tin­ues to defy easy res­ol­u­tion, Pres­id­ent Obama and his na­tion­al se­cur­ity team are look­ing bey­ond the im­me­di­ate con­flict to forge a new long-term ap­proach to Rus­sia that ap­plies an up­dated ver­sion of the Cold War strategy of con­tain­ment.

Just as the United States re­solved in the af­ter­math of World War II to counter the So­viet Uni­on and its glob­al am­bi­tions, Mr. Obama is fo­cused on isol­at­ing Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir V. Putin’s Rus­sia by cut­ting off its eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al ties to the out­side world, lim­it­ing its ex­pan­sion­ist am­bi­tions in its own neigh­bor­hood and ef­fect­ively mak­ing it a pari­ah state.

The policy shift is de­fens­ible in light of Putin’s dis­missal of U.S. over­tures on Ukraine and the broad­er at­tempt by Obama and former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton to “press the re­start but­ton” with Rus­sia. I have been among the crit­ics who have ac­cused Obama of mis­judging Putin and rais­ing ex­pect­a­tions bey­ond his ca­pa­city to meet them.

Giv­ing con­text to the Rus­sia shift, Baker writes:

That rep­res­ents a re­mark­able turn­around from the start of Mr. Obama’s pres­id­ency, when he nursed dreams of for­ging a new part­ner­ship with Rus­sia. Now the ques­tion is how much of the re­la­tion­ship can be saved. Mr. Obama helped Rus­sia gain ad­mis­sion to the World Trade Or­gan­iz­a­tion; now he is work­ing to lim­it its ac­cess to ex­tern­al fin­an­cial mar­kets.

The turn­around on Rus­sia is no more re­mark­able than the pivot Obama took after the 2008 elec­tion, when he aban­doned his post-par­tis­an brand at the first sight of Re­pub­lic­an in­transigence and forced the Af­ford­able Care Act through Con­gress without GOP back­ing. Once poisoned, the well went dry: The can­did­ate who had the “au­da­city to hope” for a new kind of polit­ics sur­rendered to the tox­ic cul­ture he prom­ised to change. Obama wrote off Re­pub­lic­ans. He said House Speak­er John Boehner can’t or won’t bar­gain on the budget, then wrapped the white flag of sur­render around the debt, gun con­trol, tax re­form, im­mig­ra­tion, and oth­er is­sues. Obama stopped look­ing for com­prom­ises, and then ex­pressed out­rage when he couldn’t find them.

Baker re­ports on a de­bate in­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion about how to con­tain Putin:

So far, eco­nom­ic ad­visers and White House aides ur­ging a meas­ured ap­proach have won out, pre­vail­ing upon a cau­tious pres­id­ent to take one in­cre­ment­al step at a time out of fear of get­ting too far ahead of skit­tish Europeans and risk­ing dam­age to still-fra­gile eco­nom­ies on both sides of the At­lantic.

The White House has pre­pared an­oth­er list of Rus­si­an fig­ures and in­sti­tu­tions to sanc­tion in the next few days if Mo­scow does not fol­low through on an agree­ment sealed in Geneva on Thursday to de­fuse the crisis, as Obama aides an­ti­cip­ate. But the pres­id­ent will not ex­tend the pun­it­ive meas­ures to whole sec­tors of the Rus­si­an eco­nomy, as some ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials prefer, ab­sent a dra­mat­ic es­cal­a­tion.

The more hawk­ish fac­tion in the State and De­fense de­part­ments has grown in­creas­ingly frus­trated, privately wor­ry­ing that Mr. Obama has come across as weak and un­in­ten­tion­ally sent the mes­sage that he has writ­ten off Crimea after Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion. They have pressed for faster and more ex­pans­ive sanc­tions, only to wait while memos sit in the White House without ac­tion. Mr. Obama has not even im­posed sanc­tions on a list of Rus­si­an hu­man-rights vi­ol­at­ors wait­ing for ap­prov­al since last winter.

That last para­graph re­minds me of Demo­crats who privately gripe about Obama’s lack of en­gage­ment with Con­gress, his un­will­ing­ness to build mean­ing­ful re­la­tion­ships, his al­le­gi­ance to polls and fo­cus groups, and his cau­tious nature that, in their minds, holds him back from great­ness. “He can’t handle Putin. He can’t handle Re­pub­lic­ans,” said a vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant and part-time ad­viser to both of Obama’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns. Speak­ing on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity, the Demo­crat told me, “He just is not a nat­ur­al lead­er.”

Be­ing a fair-minded re­port­er, Baker gave space to the White House spin:

The pre­vail­ing view in the West Wing, though, is that while Mr. Putin seems for now to be en­joy­ing the glow of suc­cess, he will even­tu­ally dis­cov­er how much eco­nom­ic harm he has brought on his coun­try. Mr. Obama’s aides noted the fall of the Rus­si­an stock mar­ket and the ruble, cap­it­al flight from the coun­try, and the in­creas­ing re­luct­ance of for­eign in­vestors to ex­pand deal­ings in Rus­sia.

The White House makes the same case against Re­pub­lic­ans, not­ing demo­graph­ic trends that threaten the fu­ture of the GOP as a na­tion­al party. The trouble with this think­ing is that be­ing right about the fu­ture doesn’t as­sure suc­cess in the present. For in­stance, look­ing weak while be­ing “right” on for­eign policy can ac­tu­ally af­fect fu­ture out­comes.

In polit­ics, be­ing a bit more “right” than the GOP is no badge of hon­or. Voters want changes, not ex­cuses.

I may be read­ing too much in­to it, but Baker’s story on the Putin re­set raises a series of fa­mil­i­ar ques­tions. Did the pres­id­ent prom­ise too much? De­liv­er too little? Or a bit of both? As much as he might try, his­tory won’t com­pletely ab­solve Obama for the sins of his rivals.

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