On October 29, 2009, the Atlantic Initiative hosted the event "From ‘Yes, we can!', to Wavering and Compromises?", in close cooperation with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) to discuss the implementation of Obama's campaign promises. The Naumann Stiftung invited three US legislators - notably Joe McDermott, a Washington State Senator, Joe Dorman, an Oklahoma State Representative and Elesha Gayman, an Iowa State Representative - who exchanged opinions on US domestic policy making. The panel further consisted of two experts from this side of the Atlantic - Dr. Henning Riecke, head of the transatlantic relations program at the DGAP and Jörg Wolf, editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Community - who addressed US foreign policy since Mr. Obama took office. The event was moderated by Jan Techau, director of the Alfred-von-Oppenheim Center for European Studies at the DGAP.
From left to right: Dr. Riecke, Mr. Dorman, Mr. Techau, Mr. McDermott, Ms. Gayman and Mr. Wolf.
President Obama deeply impressed voters during his campaign, with his groundbreaking promises for change. Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize winning project by the St. Petersburg Times, has set up an Obama-Meter which tracks Obama's over 500 campaign promises. With only 52 promises kept and the majority left unaddressed nine months after President Obama took office, Mr. Techau asked the expert panel whether Mr. Obama is up to the task.
After an eloquent introduction by Mr. Claus Gramckow of the Washington office of the Naumann Foundation, the US experts opened the discussion. Ms. Gayman pointed out that in evaluating Mr. Obama's performance we need to keep in mind that he not only inherited two wars, but also started his term in the middle of a financial crisis amid sky-high expectations of his constituency. To which Mr. McDermott added, that we cannot judge the outcome of Obama's performance one year into a four-year term. Instead, we should remember what Obama has already achieved, including passing an historic 787-billion dollar economic stimulus bill that has already created and saved an approximated 30,000 jobs. (McDermott)
Mr. Dorman went even further in stating that a President needs eight years in office to be successful in America's system of government. In referring to the US' three branches of government he said that "Obama will only be as successful as Congress allows him to be." As Obama ‘only' won 52 percent of the popular vote in the elections, he faces considerable Republican opposition in Congress. For that very reason and due to the reciprocal nature of US policy making, Obama will need to make compromises, something the President is not very keen on. (Gayman) Making progress on health reform before the mid-term elections will prove vital for Obama's ability to translate his promises into policies. If he fails to deliver on this issue, he is likely to face a ‘Clinton scenario' where more Republicans are voted into Congress, making it harder for him to pass bills in the future. (McDermott)
What makes Mr. Obama's task ever more complicated is the American public's lack of understanding regarding the complexities of foreign policy making. (Dorman) Although the protectionist 'Buy American' clause in the economic stimulus bill, for instance, resonated positively with Obama's domestic audience, he was forced to water it down after trade-war threats from Canada and Europe.
But the American people have been far more impatient with Obama than their European counterparts. While the American people have demanded instant change, in Europe Obama's popularity has bought him some valuable time to make good on his promises. Mr. Wolf noted that one of the key accomplishments of the Obama administration so far has been the improvement of the US image abroad. Obama's new foreign policy approach, a clear move away from the much criticized unilateralism from the Bush years, with a focus on transparency and dialogue has accommodated this shift in attitudes towards the US. (Riecke)
In the context of Iran, this new approach has translated into direct talks, which so far have not produced any tangible results, with Tehran seemingly playing for time for its nuclear enrichment program. But as Mr Obama has warned that the US "won't wait forever," Europe will need to make up its mind and have a strategy ready in case talks stall. Whereas the US reiterated that "all options are on the table", Europe has been lacking a unified stance, which risks harming the credibility of the transatlantic alliance. (Wolf)
As far as Russia is concerned, Dr. Riecke praised Mr. Obama's pragmatic approach in finding areas of overlapping interest, most importantly on the issue of nuclear disarmament. However, Mr. Wolf noted that Obama's campaign promises on promoting democracy and human rights in Russia are now playing second to realpolitik.
Dr. Riecke concluded that Mr. Obama has been most successful in areas where he did not need allies to reach his goals. But in the aftermath of the Iraq War, European governments have become more hesitant to step in. (Wolf) Mr. Obama is for instance, facing a hard time finding allies willing to accept Guantanamo Bay prisoners, especially after Congress blocked the resettlement of detainees in the US. As a result Mr. Obama is not likely to meet his deadline of shutting Guantanamo Bay by January 2010.
So what about the future of transatlantic relations? Shapiro and Whitney have argued that Europe is not using its ‘Obama moment' and in the absence of a unified European approach, Mr. Obama might start looking for other partners, perhaps in Asia, that can help him to deliver on his promises. But Dr. Riecke noted that Mr. Obama has already visited Europe several times, with his first visit to Asia only taking place this weekend, more than a year after he was elected, signalling the continued importance of the transatlantic alliance.
Although it is imperative to evaluate Mr. Obama's campaign promises, it is important to keep in mind that nine months into office, priorities have shifted and new issue have arisen that demand new solutions. This is especially true in relation to Afghanistan, where Mr. Obama has met his initial promises but now needs to decide on a new strategy. (Wolf) The President's job is a tricky one: he needs to find a sound balance between pleasing his domestic constituency who urge him to focus on social justice issues, and convincing foreign audiences of his commitment to resolving global challenges including energy security and climate change. That is before he can even start to push his proposals through Congress. For now, let us give Mr. Obama the benefit of the doubt.
By Stefanie Tetenburg, editorial team of atlantic-community.org
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