Not since the end of the Cold War has an American president faced this much disorder and trouble in the world. The “reset” with Russia ended with the attack on Crimea. The Arab Spring has foundered in chaos, dictatorship and war. The President’s declaration that “Assad must go” has proved as hollow as his demand that Syria cease chemical warfare attacks on its citizens. Al-Qaeda and related jihadist groups are active and growing from West Africa through Central Asia; in some ways the terror threat today is greater than ever before. The war in Afghanistan, a war that candidate Obama vowed to win, is sputtering inconclusively toward a less than stellar close. An increasingly feisty China is challenging the United States and its allies, and North Korea grinds grimly ahead with its nuclear program.
Once again, the President seems to have underestimated how much effort would be required to achieve the goals he set out. He clearly underestimated the difficulties of building a stable and businesslike relationship with Russia and was shocked and surprised at Putin’s attack on Ukraine. He underestimated the difficulty of getting the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a peace agreement, overestimated the strength of the democratic forces in Egypt, and seems not to have fully understood the difficulties in winning the Afghan war until after he committed American troops to a surge. His administration has also seriously underestimated China’s readiness to oppose American policy in the Pacific; the South and East China seas are becoming more dangerous and more militarized by the day.
With 30 months to go, Obama still may have a chance to regain control of both the domestic and international agendas, but to do that he’s going to have to change his approach. He needs to focus on the nitty-gritty, day-to-day business of governing; six years into his administration, the public is fed up with promises and hungry for concrete accomplishments.