The plan for Barack Obama’s second term has been, as they say in the military, overtaken by events.
It may be difficult to believe, but it was less than a year ago, in December 2013, that President Obama delivered a speech in which he identified the growing inequality between the rich and poor in the U.S, and the accompanying lack of upward economic mobility, as “the defining challenge of our time.”
Closing that gap, he promised, would be the focus of the remaining three years of his term.
“Over the course of the next year, and for the rest of my presidency, that’s where you should expect my administration to focus all our efforts,” he said.
Well, so much for that. The president appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday, giving an interview in which the issue of economic inequality figured not at all. And not surprisingly, as there’s a lot going on in the world right now.
Obama, of course, delivered his 2013 speech long before most Americans had even heard of ISIS, the militant Islamic group that has overrun much of Syria and Iraq, slaughtering thousands of innocents along the way, including two U.S. journalists who were brutally beheaded on video sent around the world.
He delivered it before Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to invade and ultimately annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and then took further steps that suggest he is doing the same in the eastern part of the country.
It was before the crush of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border illegally began to focus attention on the growing humanitarian crisis there and in the Central American countries where many of the children are coming from.
It was also before the Ebola virus began ravaging West Africa, and before the Islamist group, Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria and promised to sell them into slavery and forced marriages.
In fact, President Obama might as well have delivered that speech in an alternate universe, for all the relevance it has to the job he currently has before him.
Of course, there is a glut of pundits and politician peddling “If only Obama had done X” narratives that purport to prove that a raft of global crises are all Obama’s fault. In fact, with the possible exception of the Ebola crisis, the President has been directly or indirectly blamed for each of the crises currently making headlines around the world. (Yes, there are fringe sources who blame him for Ebola, too. But I’m sticking to the mainstream here.)
In truth, it’s not objectively clear that the president could have prevented any of the problems currently dominating the headlines. And this shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Obama isn’t the first president to have his agenda subverted by events outside his control. Few remember that prior to the September 11 attacks in 2001, the George W. Bush administration had placed little emphasis on the issue of terrorism and religious extremism. The headline issues in the first nine months of the new president’s term were fiscal and social: tax cuts, abortion, and stem cell research.
The fact is that while some like to pretend that the U.S. runs the world and other countries act only on the sufferance of the president, it simply isn’t the case.
The Dartmouth political science professor Brendan Nyhan has, only somewhat jokingly, called this idea of an all-powerful U.S. president the “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency” (apparently a corollary to columnist Matthew Yglesias’s “Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics.”) The idea is that, like the comic book superhero Green Lantern, the power of the president is limited only by his will to accomplish a particular goal.
Without, obviously, referring to comic books, the president has repeatedly tried to express to the American people the fact that, much as they might prefer it to be otherwise, the U.S. is not in charge of everything that happens on the globe, and the events of the past year have proven that true.
In December, the most powerful person on the planet articulated the vision he had for the remaining years of his tenure. Less than a year later, that agenda has been overtaken by events largely beyond his control.
The U.S. remains the most powerful country in the world, et cetera, et cetera. But it might be useful for those in charge – and the media who write about them – to understand that “most powerful” does not mean “omnipotent.”
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