The Unbearable Lightness of Change

MADRID – Barack Obama’s first year in office has been a sobering exercise in the limits of presidential power. It also carries lessons about how the resilient and impersonal forces of history can constrain any leader’s drive for change. Obama’s current “winter of discontent” genuinely reflects the mixed record of his first year. The Massachusetts electoral debacle only highlighted the growing rift between the president’s agenda and popular sensibilities.

Admittedly, Obama inherited a collapsing financial system, a declining world order, and the ever-present threat of global terrorism. In his titanic efforts to stem decline and reform America, Obama has shown vision and talent, but he also learned the hard way that, as Henry Kissinger put it in his memoirs, the pledges of new administrations are almost invariably like “leaves on a turbulent sea.” The impossible deadlines, the always ambiguous information the president is fed, and the complex choices that he must make are too frequently bound to clash with political constraints and the resistance to change of both allies and foes.

The president’s domestic agenda is bold and revolutionary, but it clashes frontally with the most fundamental tenets of America’s liberal and individualistic ethos. His health-care reform plan, as the Massachusetts vote demonstrated, is perceived as a personal obsession and an entirely unnecessary distraction from much more urgent and vital concerns, such as the financial crisis and unemployment.

Obama’s priorities in foreign policy are definitely sound. But creating a structure of international relations that will make a more stable and enduring world order is not a task to be completed within one year. Nor is it at all certain that the sacrifices required of a country already stretched beyond the limits of its financial capabilities, together with the resistance of world powers, will allow this to be accomplished even in a single presidential term.