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The Obama Doctrine: Review and Commentary

Introduction

I wanted to share and comment on some of my favorite sections of Jeffery Goldberg’s article on Obama’s foreign policy experiences, titled The Obama Doctrine. The article covers Goldberg’s interviews with Obama, which themselves range over a wide range of topics, from Russian expansionism to the Red Line crisis to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Obama presented in this article is much more world-weary than the dreamer who took office eight years ago. He is pragmatic and realistic when discussing the development of his response to terrorism, while at the same time attempting to retain his youthful optimism as he recalls success in Southeast Asia. The intimacy of the interview format allows for more candid moments, helping to provide a more authentic look at a president who often feels so polished.

Author’s Note: An effort has been made to draw on non-partisan information in the Context sections.

Jefferey Goldberg’s article
Quotes from President Obama
My Context & Commentary

On Obama

 “The president does not make decisions in a vacuum. He does not have a blank slate.”

Commentary

Goldberg provides a remarkably candid perspective on Obama:

Though he has a reputation for prudence, he has also been eager to question some of the long-standing assumptions undergirding traditional U.S. foreign-policy thinking. To a remarkable degree, he is willing to question why America’s enemies are its enemies, or why some of its friends are its friends. He overthrew half a century of bipartisan consensus in order to reestablish ties with Cuba. He questioned why the U.S. should avoid sending its forces into Pakistan to kill al-Qaeda leaders, and he privately questions why Pakistan, which he believes is a disastrously dysfunctional country, should be considered an ally of the U.S. at all. According to Leon Panetta, he has questioned why the U.S. should maintain Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, which grants it access to more sophisticated weapons systems than America’s Arab allies receive; but he has also questioned, often harshly, the role that America’s Sunni Arab allies play in fomenting anti-American terrorism. He is clearly irritated that foreign-policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally. And of course he decided early on, in the face of great criticism, that he wanted to reach out to America’s most ardent Middle Eastern foe, Iran. The nuclear deal he struck with Iran proves, if nothing else, that Obama is not risk-averse. He has bet global security and his own legacy that one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism will adhere to an agreement to curtail its nuclear program.

“I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”

Clearly this is not the same president who campaigned on Hope & Change eight years again. However, Obama’s optimism still shows through his world-weary exterior.

“For all of our warts, the United States has clearly been a force for good in the world,” he said. “If you compare us to previous superpowers, we act less on the basis of naked self-interest, and have been interested in establishing norms that benefit everyone. If it is possible to do good at a bearable cost, to save lives, we will do it.”

“Every president has strengths and weaknesses,” he answered. “And there is no doubt that there are times where I have not been attentive enough to feelings and emotions and politics in communicating what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.” But for America to be successful in leading the world, he continued, “I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic. I think we have to build resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we—the media, politicians—have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.”

“A president does not make decisions in a vacuum. He does not have a blank slate.”

Obama really communicates the burden of the presidency here. I would have liked to see Goldberg dig more into his often-adversarial relationship with a Republican-led Congress and how that has affected his more pragmatic approach to foreign policy.

On Putin

“He’s not completely stupid.”

Context

Over Obama’s Presidency, Russia has become an increasingly threatening presence, re-annexing Crimea in March 2014 and supporting Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad during the Syrian Civil War. Ukraine has since recalled its ambassador from Russia and passed legislation to suspend diplomatic relations, while the United States and several other European countries have leveled crippling economic sanctions against Russia. Combined with falling oil prices, the Russian economy has descended into crisis. Most analysts agree that Russia has a serious economic problem that won’t be solved anytime soon — despite dire predictions, the Kremlin remains confident.

Commentary

“Putin acted in Ukraine in response to a client state that was about to slip out of his grasp. And he improvised in a way to hang on to his control there,” he said. “He’s done the exact same thing in Syria, at enormous cost to the well-being of his own country. And the notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence. Russia was much more powerful when Ukraine looked like an independent country but was a kleptocracy that he could pull the strings on.”

Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there. I asked Obama whether his position on Ukraine was realistic or fatalistic.

“It’s realistic,” he said. “But this is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for. And at the end of the day, there’s always going to be some ambiguity.”

In recent National Security Council meetings, Obama’s strategy was occasionally referred to as the “Tom Sawyer approach.” Obama’s view was that if Putin wanted to expend his regime’s resources by painting the fence in Syria, the U.S. should let him.

I think Obama’s approach to Russia makes sense in the short term but could be worrying if future presidents don’t take a stronger stance toward Russia. Clearly Obama does not feel that Russia is economically strong enough to be extending itself as far in the Middle East as it has, and that any useless resource expenditure by Putin is good for the U.S. While I agree that Russia is not as strong as Putin would like us to believe, I feel that allowing former Soviet satellite states to drift closer and closer into the gravitational pull of Russia can only cause problems later on, especially given Obama’s realistic position on Ukraine and feelings of ambiguity mentioned earlier.

Israel

“Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel.”

Context

As one of America’s oldest allies in the Middle East, Israel and America have always shared a special relationship. The United States has committed $3.1bn in foreign aid to Israel in 2017, slightly less than 10% of the total foreign aid budget (~$33bn) but over twice as much as the next country, Egypt. Israel has been in conflict with surrounding Arab nations and cultures, specifically the Palestinians, over ownership of the Palestine region since the inception of Israel as a sovereign nation in 1947, which was created from British-controlled Palestine. Many Palestinian organizations & civilians see this as outright theft of their country and deny Israel’s right to exist, whereas Israelis have historical claims to the territory and believe the land was granted to Abraham by God. This dispute has resulted in several wars, including the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the 1973 Yom Kippur war (against Egypt & Syria), and 1982 Lebanon War, and shaped Israel’s national defense policy, including the Iron Dome missile defense system andIsrael’s qualitative military edge policy. America’s current policy toward Israel has been staunch support, althoughrecent settlement projects have resulted in pushback from President Obama along with doubts about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire for a two-state system. The State of Palestine was declared by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1988, a organization that has renounced its roots in terrorism and become the recognized voice of the Palestinian people by the U.N. and Israel.

In 2011 the State of Palestine applied for membership in the United Nations and were granted de facto recognition of sovereignty, despite threats from the U.S. & Israel.

Commentary

His sympathy for the Palestinians moved the audience, but complicated his relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister—especially because Obama had also decided to bypass Jerusalem on his first presidential visit to the Middle East.

Obama has long believed that Netanyahu could bring about a two-state solution that would protect Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority democracy, but is too fearful and politically paralyzed to do so. Obama has also not had much patience for Netanyahu and other Middle Eastern leaders who question his understanding of the region. In one of Netanyahu’s meetings with the president, the Israeli prime minister launched into something of a lecture about the dangers of the brutal region in which he lives, and Obama felt that Netanyahu was behaving in a condescending fashion, and was also avoiding the subject at hand: peace negotiations.

Several years ago, he expressed to me his admiration for Israelis’ “resilience” in the face of constant terrorism, and it is clear that he would like to see resilience replace panic in American society.

Overall the President does not discuss Israel much in this piece; his strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives much more attention. Goldberg mentions that Obama has long believed that Netanyahu could bring about a two-state solution that would protect Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority democracy, but is too fearful and politically paralyzed to do so. However, it would seem that Netanyahu has legitimate concerns with Obama at the basest level who he feels does not have a firm “understanding of the region,” a viewpoint shared by other Middle Eastern leaders. While I don’t feel that relations with Israel have necessarily deteriorated over Obama’s presidency as America is still staunchly supports Israel, clearly the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has not been the best, and it will be interesting to see how the next president handles relations with Israel.

Terrorism & ISIS

“ISIL is the Joker. It has the capacity to set the whole region on fire. That’s why we have to fight it.”

Context

We are in the 15th year of the war on terror. In his first term Obama ended the Iraq war and withdrew troops from the country. Today Obama now considers fighting ISIS to be a top priority for his administration. The Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant (ISIL), currently controls sections of Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The group initially formed as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2004 after the de-Baathification of the Iraqi government by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was criticized by AQI leadership for his deliberate targeting of civilians in suicide bombings. Although nearly defeated in 2007, AQI saw its ranks swell with dismissed Iraqi soldiers after U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011. Now led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Syrian civil war presented an opportunity to the group, and soldiers hardened from battle in Iraq began fighting in Syria. After capturing Mosul, Iraq in 2014 al-Baghdadi renamed the group ISIS; they had expanded into Libya before the end of the year and today continue to gain territory & supporters in the region. In response to ISIS 59 nations have joined the United States’ Counter-ISIL Coalition in a commitment “to work together under a common, multifaceted, and long-term strategy to degrade and defeat ISIL/Daesh.”

As of March 2016 ISIS currently holds territory in Iraq, Syria & Libya.

Commentary

It is not oil but another of the Middle East’s exports, terrorism, that shapes Obama’s understanding of his responsibilities there. Early in 2014, Obama’s intelligence advisers told him that ISIS was of marginal importance. According to administration officials, General Lloyd Austin, then the commander of Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, told the White House that the Islamic State was “a flash in the pan.”

Advisers recall that Obama would cite a pivotal moment in The Dark Knight, the 2008 Batman movie, to help explain not only how he understood the role of ISIS, but how he understood the larger ecosystem in which it grew.

“There’s a scene in the beginning in which the gang leaders of Gotham are meeting,” the president would say. “These are men who had the city divided up. They were thugs, but there was a kind of order. Everyone had his turf. And then the Joker comes in and lights the whole city on fire. ISIL is the Joker. It has the capacity to set the whole region on fire. That’s why we have to fight it.”

Although he remains committed to fighting ISIS, Obama does not believe that instituting a temporary ban on allow Muslims entrance to the United States, as leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Drumpf has called for, would be consistent with American values.

“When I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims; when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted,” Obama told the assembled reporters, “that’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

Obama frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do [Commentary note: source]. The president also gets frustrated that terrorism keeps swamping his larger agenda, particularly as it relates to rebalancing America’s global priorities.

Obama also makes several pragmatic observations on non-militaristic approaches to fighting terrorism:

He then made an observation that I came to realize was representative of his bleakest, most visceral understanding of the Middle East today—not the sort of understanding that a White House still oriented around themes of hope and change might choose to advertise. “If we’re not talking to them,” he said, referring to young Asians and Africans and Latin Americans, “because the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we’re missing the boat.”

“There is also the need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society,” he said. But he added, “I do not persuade peaceful, tolerant Muslims to engage in that debate if I’m not sensitive to their concern that they are being tagged with a broad brush.”

However, it remains clear that U.S. relations in the Middle East are murky even with established governments:

In a meeting during APEC with Malcolm Turnbull, the new prime minister of Australia, Obama described how he has watched Indonesia gradually move from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation; large numbers of Indonesian women, he observed, have now adopted the hijab, the Muslim head covering.

Why, Turnbull asked, was this happening?

Because, Obama answered, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have funneled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers, into the country. In the 1990s, the Saudis heavily funded Wahhabist madrassas, seminaries that teach the fundamentalist version of Islam favored by the Saudi ruling family, Obama told Turnbull. Today, Islam in Indonesia is much more Arab in orientation than it was when he lived there, he said.

“Aren’t the Saudis your friends?,” Turnbull asked.

Obama smiled. “It’s complicated,” he said.

Obama also comments on tribalism, a problem he sees as vast and lasting.

One of the most destructive forces in the Middle East, Obama believes, is tribalism—a force no president can neutralize. Tribalism, made manifest in the reversion to sect, creed, clan, and village by the desperate citizens of failing states, is the source of much of the Muslim Middle East’s problems, and it is another source of his fatalism.

“Look, I am not of the view that human beings are inherently evil,” he said. “I believe that there’s more good than bad in humanity. And if you look at the trajectory of history, I am optimistic. I believe that overall, humanity has become less violent, more tolerant, healthier, better fed, more empathetic, more able to manage difference. But it’s hugely uneven. And what has been clear throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is that the progress we make in social order and taming our baser impulses and steadying our fears can be reversed very quickly. Social order starts breaking down if people are under profound stress. Then the default position is tribe—us/them, a hostility toward the unfamiliar or the unknown.”

Finally, he provides a startlingly intimate insight into his thought process during tense negotiations with Iran:

“Was it a bluff?” I told him that few people now believe he actually would have attacked Iran to keep it from getting a nuclear weapon.

“That’s interesting,” he said, noncommittally.

I started to talk: “Do you—”

He interrupted. “I actually would have,” he said, meaning that he would have struck Iran’s nuclear facilities. “If I saw them break out.”

He added, “Now, the argument that can’t be resolved, because it’s entirely situational, was what constitutes them getting” the bomb. “This was the argument I was having with Bibi Netanyahu.” Netanyahu wanted Obama to prevent Iran from being capable of building a bomb, not merely from possessing a bomb.

“You were right to believe it,” the president said. And then he made his key point. “This was in the category of an American interest.”

I was reminded then of something Derek Chollet, a former National Security Council official, told me: “Obama is a gambler, not a bluffer.”

Libya & Syria

“A shit show.”

Context

In 2011 many Arab nations in North Africa and the Middle East underwent mass protests, riots, and civil war as part of the Arab Spring, including both Libya and Syria.  Libya overthrew dictator Muammar Gaddafi and Syria devolved into civil war against authoritarian President Bashar Al-Assad. In 2012 the United States embassy in Benghazi, Libya was attacked by Islamic militants, resulting in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of these attacks have beeninvestigated eight times, with no damning evidence uncovered. After years of political and governmental instability, civil war erupted in 2014 and led to the rise of radical Islam in the region. Syria has been embroiled in civil war for five years, leaving more than 250,000 people dead and 13.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Since 2011, 4.8 million refugees have left Syria, creating an international incident as countries & politicians around the world commit to taking refugees or attempt to refuse them entry.

Commentary

Obama says today of the intervention, “It didn’t work.” The U.S., he believes, planned the Libya operation carefully—and yet the country is still a disaster.

“The social order in Libya has broken down,” Obama said, explaining his thinking at the time. “You have massive protests against Qaddafi. You’ve got tribal divisions inside of Libya. Benghazi is a focal point for the opposition regime. And Qaddafi is marching his army toward Benghazi, and he has said, ‘We will kill them like rats.’

“So we actually executed this plan as well as I could have expected: We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion—which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.”

Mess is the president’s diplomatic term; privately, he calls Libya a “shit show,” in part because it’s subsequently become an ISIS haven—one that he has already targeted with air strikes. It became a shit show, Obama believes, for reasons that had less to do with American incompetence than with the passivity of America’s allies and with the obdurate power of tribalism.

“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” Obama said, “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up,” he said.

Several times throughout the article Obama expresses his frustrations with America’s European allies, from not providing military aid to not thinking of larger goals.

He was tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries. Four years earlier, the president believed, the Pentagon had “jammed” him on a troop surge for Afghanistan. Now, on Syria, he was beginning to feel jammed again.

Northern Africa remains a challenging area for American influence that has deteriorated in stability over the course of Obama’s Presidency through events such the Arab Spring, Civil war in Syria, U.S. embassy attacks in Benghazi, and countless terrorist attacks across the continent.

China & Southeast Asia

“We have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China”

Context

Southeast Asia has been an area of focus for President Obama as well as Hillary Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State; they both seem to have spent a lot of time and energy on building relations in the region, most of which has gone unnoticed and unappreciated by an American public more concerned with China’s increasing influence. While current presidential nominees focus primarily on China’s economic threat, China has beenincreasing its military presence in the South China Sea as well as creating new islands in the Spratly archipelago through massive land reclamation projects (despite Obama telling them to “stop.”). This allows the Chinese to indirectly capture more of the $5bn in global trade that passes through the region each year, which is currently being hotly contested by several other countries in the area, including Taiwan.

Commentary

For Obama, Asia represents the future. For years, the “pivot to Asia” has been a paramount priority of his. America’s economic future lies in Asia, he believes, and the challenge posed by China’s rise requires constant attention. From his earliest days in office, Obama has been focused on rebuilding the sometimes-threadbare ties between the U.S. and its Asian treaty partners, and he is perpetually on the hunt for opportunities to draw other Asian nations into the U.S. orbit. His dramatic opening to Burma was one such opportunity; Vietnam and the entire constellation of Southeast Asian countries fearful of Chinese domination presented others.

“I’ve been very explicit in saying that we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China,” Obama said. “I think we have to be firm where China’s actions are undermining international interests, and if you look at how we’ve operated in the South China Sea, we have been able to mobilize most of Asia to isolate China in ways that have surprised China, frankly, and have very much served our interest in strengthening our alliances.”

Obama believes, Carter said, that Asia “is the part of the world of greatest consequence to the American future, and that no president can take his eye off of this.” He added, “He consistently asks, even in the midst of everything else that’s going on, ‘Where are we in the Asia-Pacific rebalance? Where are we in terms of resources?’ He’s been extremely consistent about that, even in times of Middle East tension.”

“Right now, I don’t think that anybody can be feeling good about the situation in the Middle East,” he said. “You have countries that are failing to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people. You’ve got a violent, extremist ideology, or ideologies, that are turbocharged through social media. You’ve got countries that have very few civic traditions, so that as autocratic regimes start fraying, the only organizing principles are sectarian.”

He went on, “Contrast that with Southeast Asia, which still has huge problems—enormous poverty, corruption—but is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure. The contrast is pretty stark.”

Although the President recognizes the threat China presents, it is when he discusses Asia that he seems most optimistic for the future.

In Asia, as well as in Latin America and Africa, Obama says, he sees young people yearning for self-improvement, modernity, education, and material wealth.

“They are not thinking about how to kill Americans,” he says. “What they’re thinking about is “How do I get a better education? How do I create something of value?

Administration officials have repeatedly hinted to me that Vietnam may one day soon host a permanent U.S. military presence, to check the ambitions of the country it now fears most, China. The U.S. Navy’s return to Cam Ranh Bay would count as one of the more improbable developments in recent American history. “We just moved the Vietnamese Communist Party to recognize labor rights in a way that we could never do by bullying them or scaring them,” Obama told me, calling this a key victory in his campaign to replace stick-waving with diplomatic persuasion.

I noted that the 200 or so young Southeast Asians in the room earlier that day—including citizens of Communist-ruled countries—seemed to love America.

“They do,” Obama said. “In Vietnam right now, America polls at 80 percent.”

Future Threats

“The president has placed some huge bets.”

Now in his last year of office, one of Obama’s top priorities is fighting ISIS. However, as he looks to the future, he sees future problems in global warming and relations with both allies and adversaries.

Just as the leaders of several American allies have found Obama’s leadership inadequate to the tasks before him, he himself has found world leadership wanting: global partners who often lack the vision and the will to spend political capital in pursuit of broad, progressive goals, and adversaries who are not, in his mind, as rational as he is.

“As I survey the next 20 years, climate change worries me profoundly because of the effects that it has on all the other problems that we face”

“I do believe that the relationship between the United States and China is going to be the most critical”

He also doesn’t count out the rising influence of Russia, despite being somewhat underwhelmed:

A weak, flailing Russia constitutes a threat as well, though not quite a top-tier threat. “Unlike China, they have demographic problems, economic structural problems, that would require not only vision but a generation to overcome,” Obama said. “The path that Putin is taking is not going to help them overcome those challenges. But in that environment, the temptation to project military force to show greatness is strong, and that’s what Putin’s inclination is. So I don’t underestimate the dangers there.”

However, Obama leaves us with some optimism at the end, vindicating the use of diplomacy over force by all means:

“You know, the notion that diplomacy and technocrats and bureaucrats somehow are helping to keep America safe and secure, most people think, Eh, that’s nonsense. But it’s true. And by the way, it’s the element of American power that the rest of the world appreciates unambiguously. When we deploy troops, there’s always a sense on the part of other countries that, even where necessary, sovereignty is being violated.”

Obama’s Conclusions

Obama has come to a number of dovetailing conclusions about the world, and about America’s role in it.

The first is that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests.

The second is that even if the Middle East were surpassingly important, there would still be little an American president could do to make it a better place.

The third is that the innate American desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power.

The fourth is that the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power. Just as the leaders of several American allies have found Obama’s leadership inadequate to the tasks before him, he himself has found world leadership wanting: global partners who often lack the vision and the will to spend political capital in pursuit of broad, progressive goals, and adversaries who are not, in his mind, as rational as he is. Obama believes that history has sides, and that America’s adversaries—and some of its putative allies—have situated themselves on the wrong one, a place where tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and militarism still flourish.

I feel that Obama’s conclusions are perhaps the most damning argument against believing in hope & change. His realistic approach to conflict in the Middle East contrasts sharply with the rhetoric used by Republican presidential candidates this election season; depending on the outcome of the elections we could see a radical shift in U.S. policy regarding the Middle East.

Conclusions

Tribalism is a problem

The president references tribalism several times through the piece when discussing sources of issues within the Middle East & Syria, and I believe that Tribalism is an incredible prevalent problem. However, I believe that Tribalism within US Congress is an equal issue with Congress becoming increasingly partisan. Ironically, although Obama’s presidency may have stoked or reveal that growing partisan divide, he can recognize success across the aisle:

“Now, I actually think that Ronald Reagan had a great success in foreign policy, which was to recognize the opportunity that Gorbachev presented and to engage in extensive diplomacy—which was roundly criticized by some of the same people who now use Ronald Reagan to promote the notion that we should go around bombing people.”

Not only does Obama compliment Reagan for a trait not typically recognized or appreciated by contemporary conservatives, but he then turns that compliment into an implicit criticism of how modern conservatives use Reagan’s political legacy to push agendas.

Pragmatism balances optimism

Obama’s presidency has been marked by his second term shift to a more realistic approach to several aspects of presidential business, from Republicans to Russians. His conclusions drawn from eight years of holding the presidency seem to be defined by pragmatism over optimism; however, the president has remained optimistic when discussing areas such as Southeast Asia and the progress he’s made there.

“If it is possible to do good at a bearable cost, to save lives, we will do it.”

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