The first year of Barack Obama's presidency has been fraught with controversy that is largely manufactured by a united do-nothing opposition, and by a press culture willing to give credence to the wildest false claims, about policies the vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum support: smarter foreign policy; more strategic planning for Iraq and Afghanistan, including exit strategy; ethical reforms to the political process; better environmental policy; more pro-active energy innovation strategy; reining in the big banks, punishing financial regulatory violations; protecting the nation and the world against the nuclear threat.
In the early days of his administration, Pres. Obama made clear his focus on bold, sustained diplomatic efforts would be a departure from the politics of command and control of the last two presidential terms. As I reported on 21 January 2009:
On the morning of his first full day as chief executive of the United States government, Pres. Obama phoned four heads of state across the Middle East —Israel, Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan— to discuss his feeling that there is an urgent need to start a practical and viable process of sustainable peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
He also issued a strict executive order on ethics, barring anyone who had worked as a lobbyist who joins the administration from having any direct authority over or official contact with entities they had represented. That order marked a major turning point in the direction of the modern presidency, which had come to be dominated by the “revolving door” between government and lobbying, with many key officials in the last administration holding positions of direct influence over former clients.
On his second full day in office, Obama signed four historic executive orders, overturning controversial and/or unconstitutional policies from the previous administration:
He signed one order to close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp by 22 January 2010, another to close CIA “black site” prisons across the globe, another would establish a special task force in collaboration with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to determine detention policy going forward, and the fourth would require all US personnel to adhere at all times to the rules for treatment of prisoners as laid out in the Army Field Manual.
The restructuring of US military detention policy was a major first step to restoring the image of the US around the world, once more taking a leadership role on human rights, and building the political capital necessary for orchestrating international consensus on major global issues. By the spring, the international climate had changed substantially, and there were concrete efforts being made to craft global agreement on key issues like nuclear arms reduction and elimination and greenhouse gas emissions policy.
In his landmark Prague speech, looking forward to “a world without nuclear weapons”, Obama explained “the trajectory we need to be on”:
First, the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same. Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies –- including the Czech Republic. But we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.
To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year. (Applause.) President Medvedev and I began this process in London, and will seek a new agreement by the end of this year that is legally binding and sufficiently bold. And this will set the stage for further cuts, and we will seek to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor.
Indeed, the latter half of 2009 and early 2010 have seen the US and Russia negotiating intensely in Geneva to reach that agreement. Both Pres. Obama and Pres. Medvedev say the deal is near, though Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has no legal role in the negotiations or the formulation of a treaty, says US plans for a sea-based missile shield could be problematic for Russia’s security, going forward. The treaty would halve the nuclear arsenals of the two most prolific nuclear-armed powers.
Establishing a global nuclear test ban treaty and moving toward a global strategic arms reduction treaty, which would provide the framework for total denuclearization, some time in the future, once strict verification regimes are in place. Incremental denuclearization is, ultimately, a necessity, as evidenced by emerging conflicts within and near nuclear-armed states in the Middle East and Asia. As we reported in late April:
What we are seeing now in Pakistan is a good example: there is no guarantee that selective non-proliferation will not lead to cooperative black-market mechanisms that facilitate the spread of nuclear-weapons technology. Pakistan acquired the technology this way, and some of its black-marketeers may have further spread the technology they purchased. Pakistan is now experiencing severe political destabilization and the Taliban has taken over areas just 100 km from the capital.
Pres. Obama’a security policy, with regard to Pakistan, has done more to focus on safeguarding Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal against Taliban takeover or infiltration than any previous president. And we are now seeing a close integration of nuclear-weapons containment diplomacy with counter-terrorism efforts and pro-democracy development. This is the smartest way forward and a fulfillment of Pres. Obama’s promise of a more collaborative, long-view hands-on foreign policy.
Key among the reform processes initiated in Pres. Obama’s first months in office was the process of examining, overhauling and preserving major elements of the banking sector. This was uncomfortable for many in the financial industry, but as promised, Obama got involved, did not nationalize the banks, used government leverage to “stress test” the banks’ books and to implement reforms aimed at preventing their collapse. On 29 April, we reported:
Obama has challenged the entire banking system to reform in the interests of survival, not only aiming to prevent major bank failures and individual home foreclosures, but pressuring banks to lend again, and to cease accounting practices that lead to over-leveraging and phony claims about capital in reserve. With banks reeling from incomprehensible losses, and a credit freeze gripping the nation’s consumer markets, Obama did not relent in applying financial-analysis “stress tests” to banks’ books, to see what they could withstand and what real fiscal stability or resilience they had.
The New Republic is now calling those stress tests the “most underrated move of the year”. The magazine says the stress tests were “Obama’s best economic policy of 2009″ and notes that they “cost us … exactly nothing”. The stress tests allowed the government to understand the true scope of the financial crisis, steer the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) toward viable long-term thinking, and re-orient the markets to understand the nature of the banks’ capital shortfalls and adapt.
The New Republic praises the Obama administration for expanding transparency through the stress-testing process, helping to demonstrate that big banks could not simply bury their problems in dizzying mash-ups of manipulative accounting methods and that transparency itself actually has a market value, a positive influence on public confidence and willingness to invest. All of this was just a beginning, but the major news was: not one single major bank, no matter how troubled, collapsed during 2009, and the majority of projected bank failures were averted, despite over 100 smaller institutions taken over by the FDIC.
A similarly collaborative, pragmatist approach has won Obama favor for concrete, albeit sometimes hard to define, steps toward peacemaking around the world. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley has classed Obama as the United States’ “first global president”. Considering the rapid overhaul of the United States’ security and detention policies, to bring them in line with both domestic and international law, his aggressive outreach to leaders in the Middle East and across Asia, and his determined stance on nuclear disarmament, Pres. Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, much to the chagrin of his critics, who wish to paint him as an idealist who has “done nothing” while governing.
The award was controversial, because many believe his presidency is too near the beginning to speak of contributions to global peace and stability, but the award is often given to political figures whose goals are not yet achieved, some of whom have unsavory pasts, to say the least, and whose actions on the global stage have been less globally influential than Obama’s. His efforts throughout 2009 to establish an international climate of cooperation and dialogue have been vital to creating new opportunities for peace, and the Nobel Committee recognized this as the most important achievement of its kind for 2009.
The false controversy over whether Pres. Obama “deserved” the award obscured very substantial diplomatic achievements, some of which have already been named. On the occasion of the award, I wrote that:
UN SC Res. 1887 is one of the most important documents ever produced by the UN system, in that it lays the groundwork for a world free of nuclear weapons, however long it may take to achieve that goal. In the entire history of the nuclear arms race, no one has achieved that level of consensus on disarmament. This was done by aggressive, forthright and successful diplomacy, in the span of just 8 months’ worth of work. That is a major accomplishment.
On the question of peace and diplomacy, Barack Obama managed to deal with two “hostage” situations, with enemy “rogue states”, Roxana Saberi in Iran and Euna Lee and Laura Ling in North Korea, without escalating tensions in either region, without making threats or being weak; in each case, the art of diplomacy was practiced in such a way that it would lead to both success and non-escalation.
On Iran, the nuclear program is worrying, but for the first time in 30 years, the US has actually met with Iranian diplomats to discuss these issues directly, and the result is that Iran is in theory, agreeing to allow inspectors in, and even to ship uranium out of the country for processing. If this happens, the bomb will not be obtained by Iran.
Again: ambitious, successful nuclear diplomacy, enhanced credibility, peace before war, multilateralism, and just 8 months in office. I think the prize is not premature, because there are in fact real effects to all of this. There is a new climate favoring international cooperation to reduce or eliminate the world’s worst weapons, to raise awareness about and fight against brutalization and repression of women, and to achieve consensus on the most favorable ways to deal with climate-destabilizing emissions.
Pres. Obama’s pragmatic reform politics has revolutionized the way the United States deals with international crises and its prospects for winning support for major diplomatic endeavors, even among onetime rivals. And, in collaboration with Sec. of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, part of Obama’s own “team of rivals”, both domestic and international social policy has been shifted toward a broader focus on the status of women and girls.
Pres. Obama established, by executive order, the White House Council on Women and Girls, comprised of the heads of every Cabinet-level agency and led by his close aide Valerie Jarrett. The promotion of women’s rights and standing in society is not merely an issue of civil rights and equal pay in advanced democracies, but can be the single most important vehicle for building peace and prosperity in war-torn, impoverished and failing states.
As I reported on 2 January 2010:
The US Department of Defense has taken direct interest in the status of women’s rights around the world, especially in conflict zones, and is collaborating with the Obama administration’s initiative to promote the rights of women and girls. Pres. Obama has established a panel on which every Cabinet-level department head must report on the status of women and girls as relating to their purview. And women’s rights in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other key nations, is now a focus of Sec. of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s assertive “3D diplomacy”: diplomacy, development, defense.
Promoting the rights and the needs of women and girls will help to create a more educated, more civil and cooperative population, and should help to speed development to remote areas where improvements to basic infrastructure and economic cohesion cannot take root without active, sustained participation, and even leadership, on the part of women. More secure family environments and more advanced educational resources should also mean a reduced risk of armed conflict, factionalism and the collapse of basic services. The rights of women and girls are linked to all efforts to prevent or to combat the proliferation of failed states.
Pres. Bill Clinton used to talk about “building a bridge to the 21st century”, and as we sit back and survey the wide array of accomplishments of Pres. Obama’s first year in office, alongside the withering criticism and the many frustrations, it’s worth noting that one of the key features of this first year has been a refocusing of national resources, political and material, toward building a better future, both domestically and abroad. Many of the initiatives we have cited will be integral to shaping positive outcomes in facing the major challenges of this decade.
Millions of people disagree with Pres. Obama, either for ideological or partisan reasons, or because something about his unique cultural heritage is unsettling to their tastes, or biases. But his leadership has been principled and consistent, he has been true to his word, following through on hundreds of promises, and his has already been, after just 12 months, the most engaged and open presidency in modern times. His Open Government Initiative will take this process further in 2010 and in years to come, giving citizens a voice and creating an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability in American government.
As far as his signature initiatives go: both houses of Congress passed comprehensive healthcare reform legislation for the first time since Medicare, and he will likely sign a bill into law in January. The new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia is said to be nearing agreement. And a solution for how to close down the extra-judicial detention facility at Guantánamo Bay is within reach, with a new prison being established in Illinois and federal criminal trials ready to begin.
Obama has also made important strides toward one of the most daunting challenges of the 21st century: responsible stewardship of the world’s oceans. He is praised by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for “a remarkable number of actions to address a wide variety of environmental challenges” [PDF], including two key moves to restore and sustain the global ocean system. The oceans are under threat from rising mercury levels, rampant infestation from non-biodegradable plastics and numerous toxic pollutants, not to mention increased sea traffic and military exercises.
The scope of the oceanic degradation is only now beginning to be understood, and environmentalists argue it may well be the most complex of all environmental challenges going forward. Greenhouse gases, for instance, can be phased out, but all chemical residues of all kinds eventually wind up in the ocean, threatening marine life, habitat, water quality, human health and climate stability. Obama is praised for naming world-renowned marine ecologist Dr. Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and for beginning the process of crafting a national ocean policy.
The NRDC evaluation also specifically praises Pres. Obama’s efforts to help move the US toward a clean energy economy, citing concrete advances in each of the following:
- Boosting Investment in Clean Energy Jobs
- Upgrading Efficiency Standards
- Prioritizing Sustainability
- Confirming the Threat of Global Warming Pollution
- Adopting Stringent National Vehicle Standards for Carbon Pollution and Fuel Economy
- Curbing Carbon Pollution
- Accelerating Development of High-Speed Intercity Rail
- Improving the Livability of Communities
- Scientifically Assessing Role of Biofuels
While critics on the right and the left claim the Obama presidency has been marked by compromise and a strict partisan divide in the Congress, it has been remarkably productive so far. In an atmosphere of crisis and deep public malaise, with hostile opposition to any substantive innovations in policy or principled, compromise, Pres. Obama has found a way to achieve real breakthroughs that will benefit the nation over the long-term, consistently taking a pragmatic approach to solving intensely complex problems.
Pres. Obama has had the privilege, or perhaps the burden, of being the most inspiring political figure in recent memory in US politics, yet he is also the most frequently threatened. The number of alleged plots to assassinate him has been truly worrying, and some of his adversaries have been willing to speak of armed rebellion in the national media. But that vitriol and hatred should not be allowed to detract from what has been an historic and accomplished first year in office, showing real progress on issues of vital long-term relevance to the well-being of the American people.