Obama’s first year: A Transformational Presidency?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

"2010 will be decisive in terms of whether Obama keeps his promise of change," writes Marcin Zaborowski, senior research fellow at the Centre for International Studies, in an April paper.

The following commentary was produced by Marcin Zaborowski.

"Sworn in just over one year ago against the backdrop of the global economic crisis and two wars, US President Barack Obama's report card is due for an evaluation. Have the decisions and actions taken over the last twelve months lived up to the promise of 'change' that Obama reiterated throughout his election campaign?

Several commentators thought Obama would merely tweak US foreign policy, his efforts falling short of any sort of 'transformation'. They predicted that his campaign promises would hit the 'reality wall' once he entered the Oval Office: any US troop pull-out from Iraq would be protracted, a redoubling of the US military presence in Afghanistan would not be possible, the Middle East peace process would remain stalled and America would continue to support Israel.

Despite his best intentions, opposition from Congress would mean that Obama would probably shelve major initiatives in the areas of climate change or nuclear disarmament.

Indeed, Obama has certainly not been able to dramatically transform US foreign policy thus far. Yet there are signs of progress, alongside clear challenges.

Despite being dealt some unlucky cards, most notably the global economic crisis, legislative progress was made with the passing of the federal economic stimulus bill. Although the Copenhagen summit ended without a binding agreement, Obama's commitment to reducing carbon emissions is stronger than that of George W. Bush. Obama helped to stabilise Pakistan with an aid package designed to bolster its economy and fight terrorism.

In addition, Obama's personal popularity has boosted America's image abroad. Although the US remains unpopular in some parts of the world, arguably Obama's engagement with the Muslim world has significantly improved America's image in the region.

But there are some glaring omissions on Obama's report card. His election ushered in hopes for a revival of the Middle East peace process, but so far he has failed to deliver.

Despite some signs of improvement following the troop surge in Afghanistan, much work needs to be done to build on the success of the initial offensive in Helmand province. Obama's engagement with the Dalai Lama, as well the arms sales to Taiwan, have both acted to sour US relations with China.

Critics on the right point out that under Obama's watch, North Korea advanced its nuclear programme and Iran responded to the offer of engagement by announcing its plans to enrich weapons-grade uranium.

And Russia ensured that US plans for a ballistic missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic were cancelled.

Even critics from Obama's own camp argue that he has not gone far enough vis-à-vis Iran or in relation to finding a settlement with the Taliban. Because he 'has his fingers in too many pies', there is no substantial progress to report on any particular issue.

Some of this criticism may be justified: his administration has committed some foreign policy blunders and diplomatic faux pas.

For example, by failing to consult Warsaw and Prague about the change of plans on the missile defence shield, the US unnecessarily antagonised two of its staunchest allies. To make matters worse, Obama made the announcement on 17 September, exactly seventy years after Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union.

With declining approval ratings at home, down from 70 to 45%, the president's room for manoeuvre is slowly diminishing.

The sky-high confidence that most Europeans have in Obama will surely begin to follow suit. Early into his term, Obama made healthcare reform a key priority and his promises in that area have now been realised. But in terms of foreign policy, the Democrats are growing restless and their support for the war in Afghanistan is declining. In the meantime, it is becoming more evident that the coalition assembled for Obama's campaign is beginning to fragment.

With no other major improvement on the domestic front apart from healthcare reform, it is likely that the Congressional elections in November 2010 will reduce the Democratic majority or perhaps even usher in a Republican victory. But it is hardly surprising that Obama's first year has failed to deliver any foreign policy breakthroughs.

The legacy of Obama's predecessor – particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – cannot be reversed overnight. In turn, the nature of American domestic politics means that there are often long transitional periods before any new administration is ready to tackle difficult challenges.

Obama simply has not had enough time to transform US foreign policy. But the major Middle East policies being pursued at present and those planned for the future, as well as those in relation to disarmament and climate change, suggest that Obama's presidency has the potential to be transformational in the year ahead.

However, if by November Obama's administration has accomplished little, it is likely to remain an underachiever until the end of the presidential term.

2010 will thus be a crucial year for delivering results and will be decisive in terms of whether Obama keeps his promise of change."

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