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opinion | Niall Ferguson

Obama can’t govern? Who knew?

President Obama arrived for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in Beijing on Tuesday.REUTERS

Sometimes politics isn’t all local. There is little doubt that it was President Obama and his administration’s failures that condemned the Democrats to a crushing defeat in both the congressional and gubernatorial contests last week. In particular, the president’s fumbling foreign policy played a key part, in defiance of former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s rule that “all politics is local.”

In a New York Times/CBS poll conducted in September, 58 percent of voters expressed disapproval of Obama’s foreign policy. The previous month, a majority said they thought the president was “not tough enough” abroad. And an October Pew poll showed the Republicans doubling their lead over the Democrats on foreign policy compared with 2010.

After a period of Iraq-induced “war weariness,’’ the public mood has changed. Clearly, recent events in the Middle East — including the rise of ISIS and its hideous decapitations of two American citizens — have disabused voters of the fantasy that the United States could somehow walk away from the problems of that region with impunity.


Watching disaster unfold in Syria and Iraq, as well as Ukraine, people have woken up to the fact that this president is, as Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf has written, a man whose “political and policy narcissism” is “bad for America and its role in the world.”

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In their 2012 presidential debate on foreign policy, Obama mocked then-rival Mitt Romney with the carefully crafted line: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” Who would not now welcome a return to the foreign policy of the 1980s? The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Sunday was a reminder of just how successful it was.

“Where Did Obama Go Wrong?” asked the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and David Nakamura ahead of the midterms. Their answer was a litany of second-term failures at home as well as abroad. Gee, who could possibly have predicted that?

Well, in August 2012 I wrote an article for Newsweek arguing against giving Obama a second term. It brought the wrath of the blogosphere down upon my head. Paul Krugman accused me of “multiple errors and misrepresentations,” though he specified only one. James Fallows of the Atlantic pompously apologized on behalf of Harvard alumni. His colleague Matthew O’Brien claimed to have found as many as a dozen factual errors.


There was indeed one error in the piece: I was wrong to suggest that the Affordable Care Act would add to the deficit. But the other alleged errors were, on close inspection, differences of opinion at best. In any case, my argument wasn’t about the mediocre performance of the US economy, which — as I said — could hardly all be blamed on the president. It was about the president’s style of leadership.

The reason the public has lost its illusions about Obama is that he has proved to be as bumbling an executive as he was beguiling as a campaigner.

The president gave Congress a more or less free hand to design his flagship legislation — the stimulus, health care reform, financial regulation. The results were three giant messes. Worse, he has consistently failed to think through the implications of three major challenges to American power: the continuing spread of Islamic extremism, the military threat posed by an aggressive Russia, and the rise of Asia’s new economic superpower, China.

“We don’t have a strategy yet,” the president told reporters Sept. 4. He was referring to the specific challenge posed by ISIS. But those words pretty much sum up his foreign policy since 2009.


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The perfect illustration is the president’s 180-degree turn on Iraq. Elected as the man who could get the United States out of George W. Bush’s war, he withdrew US forces far too hurriedly and — as predicted — has now been forced to send them back in to try to quell the resulting maelstrom.

Today, of all days, this strategic ineptitude really rankles. Try telling the families of the brave servicemen and women who died serving their country over the past 11 years that America’s new foreign policy doctrine is “Don’t do stupid sh**.’’

(Oh, and for the record: I was just as critical of George W. Bush at the same stage in his presidency. Criticizing Obama’s foreign policy doesn’t equate to defending Bush’s.)

Of course, I don’t expect my critics to admit I was right, much less to apologize. Last month, writing in Rolling Stone, Krugman insisted that Obama is “one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.” Fact-check this: “Most analyses [of the midterms] suggest that control of the Senate is in doubt, with Democrats doing considerably better than they were supposed to. This isn’t what you’d expect to see if a failing president were dragging his party down.”

Er, no. Tuesday’s thrashing of the Dems was exactly “what you’d expect to see if a failing president were dragging his party down.”


Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University.