The excellent start of Obama’s presidency in the foreign policy sphere was marked by three events in 2009: by his speech in Cairo, Egypt, widely viewed as an offer of reconciliation to the Muslim world; by his video address to the government of Iran and by the unveiling of the new “reset” policy of improving relations between the United States and Russia.
Obama’s detractors, especially the ones from the Republican camp, often say that neither of these three moves was reciprocated. This is simply not true, since the “reset” with Russia led to the signing of the New START treaty, which filled the vacuum in the arms control sphere. This vacuum was produced by the expiration of the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed back in 1991 by presidents George Bush senior and Mikhail Gorbachev.
America’s relations with the Muslim world definitely improved after Obama’s Cairo speech, mainly due to a gradual withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Washington’s support for the Arab revolutions, which all had a more or less distinct Islamist character.
The détente with Iran was cut short primarily by Obama himself, when he reverted from peace talk to his policy of “leaving all options on the table” (a euphemism for a threat of war). The brilliant foreign policy start was further clouded by Obama’s acquiescence to interventionist tendencies inside his own administration.
The interventionist trends included covert supplies of weapons for rebels in Libya and Syria; the brutal “take-no-prisoners” policy of killing terrorism suspects and sometimes their families from drones, a policy that made a hideous travesty out of Obama’s own previous promise of shutting the Guantanamo prison.
Very often Obama prefers show to substance, and the scalp of Osama bin Laden, trumpeted by Obama as the main achievement of his presidency, is a good example of this attitude. A special operation in a wealthy suburb of Islamabad, which killed many people besides bin Laden, including bystanders, cost the United States its relations with Pakistan.
During the electoral campaign Obama preferred targeting his traditional audiences (liberal city dwellers, America’s poor, Afro-Americans and other ethnic minorities). He widened the horizons of American politics in a liberal direction, embracing the service of gays in the military and supporting equal rights for gay couples and traditional ones. This led to further cultural divisions inside American society and alienated from Obama some of his vacillating centrist supporters, deepening suspicions of his “non-Christian” cultural background (some of Obama’s African ancestors on his father’s side were Muslims and he spent part of his adolescence in Indonesia, an Islamic country).
Diplomacy and culture aside, in the sphere of American domestic policies Obama revealed himself to be something else than an idealistic near-revolutionary (an image aggressively sold to public during his campaign in 2008). Instead, just like in his foreign policies, Obama opted for the ways of a cunning pragmatist, camouflaging the same old trends of his predecessors’ policies with pompous words.
His modest plans of boosting economic growth by financial injections and making the American health care system more humane and less profit-oriented via a system of government-sponsored insurance (dubbed Obamacare by his detractors) so far brought only modest results.
Since the beginning of 2012 Obama shifted the work of the White House staff into a campaign mode, aggressively attacking the foreign policy stance and the business background of his Republican competitor, Mitt Romney. After four years in the White House, Obama’s Protean image of a smooth operator, a lawyer with many faces, lost the appeal that it had in 2008. However, Obama may be helped by Romney’s own inadequacy, including the Republican’s blatantly populist characterizations of Obama as a “European socialist” and of Russia as “America’s number one geopolitical foe.”