CAMBRIDGE – Last month, in his address to the graduating cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point, President Barack Obama stated that some of America’s most costly mistakes since World War II were the result not of restraint, but of a “willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” Though Obama may be right, the speech did little to mollify critics who have accused him of passivity and weakness, particularly regarding Syria and Ukraine.
This frustration can be blamed partly on the impossibly high expectations that Obama set in his early speeches, in which he inspired voters with promises of systemic transformation. Unlike most candidates, Obama maintained this transformational rhetoric even after it secured him his victory in the 2008 campaign. Indeed, a series of addresses in the first year of his presidency raised expectations even higher, by establishing the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world, promising to revamp America’s approach to the Middle East, and pledging to “bend history in the direction of justice.”
It is often said that democratic politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. But there is no reason to believe that Obama was being disingenuous about his objectives. His vision simply could not withstand the recalcitrant and difficult world that confronted him; so he had to adjust. After just one year in office, the man who had promised transformational leadership became a “transactional” leader – pragmatic to a fault. And, despite what his critics say, this was a positive development.
While vowing to use force when America’s vital interests are at stake and rejecting pessimistic projections of national decline, Obama has – unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush – relied more heavily on diplomacy than force. For this, his critics have accused him of failing to promote American values and retreating into isolationism.