Obama: Transitional or Transformational?

If you haven’t read Thomas P.M. Barnett’s latest WPR column, I recommend you do. It’s as thoughtful and thought-provoking a take on President Barack Obama’s domestic and international political horizons as any I’ve read recently. That’s mainly because Barnett neither dismisses nor exaggerates his targets, whether they be Obama’s accomplishments or failures, or the populist backlash to some of the latter. It’s not so much a critique of Obama, as it is an assessment of how his skills and shorcomings fit in structurally to the tasks at hand.

As someone whose natural approach to problem-solving is to toss away everything and restart from scratch, I found a lot to agree with in Barnett’s analysis: My major disappointment with Obama to date has been that he has not been bold enough in bringing new approaches to the problems he inherited. But as Barnett points out, such boldness might have been too ambitious given how far astray American foreign policy had drifted, akin to jerking the wheel to the other side of the road instead of coolly bringing it back to the center, which is clearly Obama’s strong suit. And with regards to domestic policy, a healthy fiscal diet and plenty of exercise might be long-term solutions to America’s economic woes, but tourniquettes and CPR have their place when it comes to emergency interventions.

Nevertheless, one thing that struck me, and it’s not the first time, is the difference in how Obama is perceived Stateside compared to an offshore perspective. The rest of the world is too busy blaming their own leaders for domestic economic meltdowns — whether real, averted, or anticipated — to be overly critical of Obama. And the rest of the world probably has more realistic expectations of what American power and influence can accomplish than many American observers. So there’s much less disappointment with Obama and the direction he’s taken America’s global leadership abroad than there seems to be in the U.S. these days.

Specifically, from afar, Obama does not come across as weak and ineffective, either domestically or in the international arena. And that holds true on both an absolute and relative scale. When it comes to global affairs, the only countries that really stand out these days are Turkey, in terms of its diplomatic shine, and Russia, in terms of its savvy power politics. For all its frenetic energy, China looks pretty jittery. Fair or not, Europe looks like a trainwreck. Brazil has yet to really deliver. And the new Japanese leadership looks pathetic.

As for the question of whether Obama will be a transitional figure, like Jimmy Carter, or a transformational one, like Ronald Reagan, it bears noting that at this point in his presidency, Reagan wasn’t yet transformational either. For all his insistence that America’s days of global leadership were not over, in May 1982, Americans were far from convinced. And in fact, Reagan’s truly transformational mandate for a “Morning in America” came with his landslide electoral victory in 1984.

Barnett himself acknowledged that his assessment was premature — that it’s an inkling, not a prediction. I think there’s something to it, even a lot to it. But I’m not ruling out a major surprise come 2012.