What Obama is Doing Wrong

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Dr. Judith Apter Klinghoffer taught history and International relations at Rowan University, Rutgers University, the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing as well as at Aarhus University in Denmark where she was a senior Fulbright professor. She is an affiliate professor at Haifa University. Her books include Israel and the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences and International Citizens' Tribunals: Mobilizing Public Opinion to Advance Human Rights.

Candidate Barack Obama challenged Americans to be audacious enough to hope that being perceived as racist bullies was at the root of all their security and economic woes.  The best way forward, therefore, was to elect as president a first term multiracial senator who would change the “unfair” free enterprise system.  The majority of American voters accepted the challenge, to worldwide cheers.  The greatest achievement of the Obama presidency has now been to prove candidate Obama’s security premise wrong, and he admitted so in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

A year hence, Americans may be more popular but they are neither safer, nor better off than they were a year ago.  The opposite is true.  Who fared worst under the Obama presidency? America’s friends abroad, and Obama’s voters at home.  Not surprisingly, polls show that the majority of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track and disapprove of Obama’s job performance.  Indeed, the country is seething with a degree of anger not seen since the late Sixties.

Nothing symbolizes more perfectly the irrelevance of the ethnicity of an American president than a Nigerian wannabe suicide bomber.  Nothing can illustrate better the uselessness of the atmosphere of global opinion than the precipitous rise in Jihadi efforts to terrorize the American homeland.  From 2001 to 2009, there were zero successful Islamist attacks on the American homeland.  There have been three successful ones during the last three months, killing 13 Americans and injuring dozens.  As former CIA director General Michael Hayden implies, the fault lies partly on the Obama administration’s shifting of the attention from fighting terrorists to fighting for the rights of terrorists.

Nor is there an iota of evidence that the world has become a safer place.  Obama’s wish to engage Iran has merely served to embolden its hard line rulers, giving them time to develop their nuclear capabilities, arm proxy terrorist armies, and savagely murder their domestic critics.  Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen have not faired better.  “Reset” buttons have not made China and Russia more cooperative (merely less respectful), and all the empty talk has made Eastern Europe, India and Israel more nervous.

Moreover, for the first time America does not stand shoulder to shoulder with those fighting for democracy and individual liberty - so much so that students in Tehran carry banners asking: Obama are you with us or with them?;

It is true that economists no longer warn of a global economic collapse.  The Obama administration, however, has not only paid an exorbitant price for the so-called global economic stabilization but has done so at the expense of its weakest citizens.  Printing vast amounts of dollars and embarking on humongous government spending benefited those with enough money to dare invest in the post-March 2009 stock market and workers in the public sector.  In the meantime, a myriad of Obama legislative initiatives, from health care reform to cap and trade and financial regulation reform, have left the private sector unable to plan effectively.

The result?  A widespread hiring freeze and a 10% official unemployment rate.  To make matters worse, official African American unemployment reached 15.6% and official youth unemployment (16-24) reached 19.1%.  18% of Americans are getting food stamps.  For the first time, most Americans believe that their children will be worse of than they are.

So, what does the future hold for the Obama administration?  It is too early to tell. Much will depend on his ability to learn and change course.  Obama is using Chicago-style strong-arm techniques at home, while kowtowing to kings and dictators abroad.  To forestall big Democratic loses in the 2010 elections, he will have to reverse tactics.  He will need to flex some muscles abroad and be more respectful to his critics at home, and realize that pretty, abstract speeches will not suffice - blaming George W. Bush will not do.  To turn his presidency around he must convince Americans that he puts them first.  He must create a stable business atmosphere that will encourage private job creation, and he must cut the budget deficit.

It is a tall order, but who said that being the American president is easy?

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omar ibrahim baker - 1/12/2010

Ms Krusten
I do appreciate and in a certain way do envy your work experience that I can only depict as a personal/professional work milieu as distinct from a mass "cause"/ doctrine inspired work milieu.
The mass doctrine ie
"cause"/conscience/beliefs work milieu necessarily demands, actually imposes and ordains, a work milieu in which personal/professional factors must by defintion cede first priority to doctrinaire/cause demands and in the extreme to cause/ doctrinaire dictates.

Your work criteria, standards ( ethics?) and work environment in no way do resemble those working for a "cause" .
AS such my question was NOT, with all due respect, addressed to you as much as it was about whether it mattered where Ms Klinghoffer, unmistakeably an ardent Zionist cause driven writer, worked.

As a cause driven writer, and irrespective of the validity or vacuity and utter destructiveness of her cause , she is ( no offence meant) bound to use a double standard wherein all( her) cause related issues purporting to support or denigrate her cause are necessarily highlighted, or neglected and discounted, as the prevalence of (her) cause dictates irrespective of the intrinsic merits or demerits of the issue at hand.

Maarja Krusten - 1/12/2010

Mr. Baker, yes, I think it does matter where someone lives. Or where he or she works. Or what the employer’s workplace culture emphasizes. All those things can affect how a person looks at issues. I work in the Washington, DC area for the federal government, my employer for the last 37 years. My experiences in working as an historian in a governmental setting have shaped how I look at things and why I have developed empathy for U.S. Presidents of both parties. My job at the National Archives required me to work in an accountability environment in a team setting. We had to focus on laws, statutes and regulations, and to set aside our personal political views. Not only was it a very fact-based work environment, it was one where employees were very aware of the public trust. If we didn’t or couldn’t do our jobs right, other historians could not get access to the source documents on which historians depend.

When you work in such a non-partisan workplace culture, and especially when you rise in rank to the managerial class (where I now am), you develop an interest in what enables diverse teams of people to work together and what hinders collaboration. It helps to take into account what is called personality-typing. Salon had an interesting article about the projected Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator groupings of the front running candidates in 2008 (McCain, Obama, Clinton).

Over time, due to practical application as well as study, I also developed an interest in other aspects of communications and leadership. As Gen. Zinni put it once, “A good leader leads from the front, being a part of what the group or team does. The leader should only use his/her power (‘Because I said so’) as a last resort, and take time to ensure buy-in and understanding. This can be accomplished through listening to concerns and being a mentor to the followers.”

That requires a very different skillset than a job where someone sits aloof and alone and has the power to tell others “because I said so.” I’ve had some interesting conversations with self-employed people and workers who are unused to team based workplaces. The way in which they look at people can be very different from that which one develops in a job that depends on persuasion as well as producing results.

Studying the presidency is particularly interesting because the job itself is solution-oriented but the way people get elected often takes us back to high school (name calling, exaggeration, appeals to tribalism). As I noted once in an article I wrote about Richard Nixon, as they struggle to advance their political goals, “presidents find themselves trapped between mudslinging political opponents and an electorate which frequently displays only a rudimentary understanding of governance.” It’s fascinating to study and observe how Presidents handle the nexus of two very, very different cultures: the political, which often relies on negative tactics from which we would recoil if our friends and family members used them on us, and the presidential, which relies on executive skills to which most managers can relate.

I think most people who read HNN are grateful they don’t have to succeed at high-risk jobs, while under constant assault from mud-slinging opponents who hope they fail.

omar ibrahim baker - 1/12/2010

Does really matter where they live?

Judith Apter Klinghoffer - 1/11/2010

I currently live most of the year in the US. In 1956 I lived in Israel and my aunt lived in Budapest. So, yes, I remember it well.

Maarja Krusten - 1/11/2010

Ah, you’re abroad, not in the U.S. Sorry I didn’t notice that, I didn’t read your bio blurb. I thought you were too busy with academic obligations to follow some of the things I mentioned above, such as exit polls and books about Presidents. I’ve read your blog maybe 10 times over the last 5 or 6 years and don’t follow you closely. I knew you were not a Presidential historian but I didn’t know you don’t live in the U.S. now.

I sympathize with the challenges of trying to suss out what is happening in one country while resident in another. I’ve lived my whole life in the U.S. but follow events in some foreign countries closely. I can’t say I understand or would be able to pick up all the nuances from afar. Some things you get from mingling with people in a country. I pick up a lot of interesting insights from talking to my Republican and Democratic friends here in the U.S. Ah, but we have the Internet. But it has its drawbacks. People can end up trapped in echo chambers or feedback loops and not know it. And then there is the non-academic tone, yikes. As Joel Achenbach once put it so well:

"The demands of punditry disallow intellectual modesty. Certainly we see that in the world of TV and radio, where we've created a political culture dominated by a certain kind of loud, angry, chest-beating male. The culture of bluster is driven by ratings -- and, online, by page views. The moderated opinion, nuanced and open-minded, is a field mouse in a land patrolled by raptors.

Punditry increasingly is the province of partisans, table-pounders, the permanently outraged, the congenitally ungenerous."

Certainly not the way we strive to write history. I do follow blogs and message boards from across the political spectrum but you end up wading through a lot of silly political stuff along with the insightful nuggets.

If you want to study up on U.S. fiscal and foreign policy and national security challenges, I recommend a publication from a group founded by David Abshire, a former Reagan official. His group puts out interesting, nonpartisan analyses which are more fact based than what you’ll find on run of the mill political blogs. If you’re interested in fiscal issues and the deficit, you might pick up some interesting information from his groups 2009 overview at
http://www.thepresidency.org/Publications/Saving_Americas_Future.php Lots of heavy hitters contributing there (I know some of ‘em.)

If you’re interested in learning about leadership, I recommend presentations by people such as retired U.S. General Anthony Zinni. The one thing that ordinary members of the public frequently overlook, and even some academics who don’t specialize in the Presidency, is the extent to which leaders sometimes have to choose between two bad choices or to learn to deal with ambiguity. (And unwarranted mudslinging.) Zinni explains this well and also provides insights into why U.S. military and civilian agencies and departments benefit from a learning culture. (A workplace culture that is afraid of learning is the type which demands that only praise be offered leaders and that negatives be swept under the rug.) As Zinni put it in a presentation at Villanova,

“The responsible leader must recognize that he/she is responsible for the decisions made for him/her and therefore analyze the structure of how decisions are made within the organization. How are alternatives presented and what ethical bases for decision making are utilized? It is imperative that feedback is built into this system and that the leaders are receptive to this information. This feedback helps the leadership to understand whether the organization works the way they think it does. At high levels of seniority, decisions become less clear, and the decision-maker is often forced to choose between the lesser of two evils or two goods.”

As to oppressed peoples, the Eisenhower administration’s struggles to meet the challenges of the 1956 Hungarian uprising provide some sobering reminders of how tought that can be. My Dad was working for the Voice of America at the time although not in the Hungarian section. Who would have known, looking at those events which the U.S. was powerless to guide towards a good outcome, that 40 years later, Hungary would be free of the Soviet yoke. Sometimes things take a long time but still end up better than one might expect.

Good luck in trying to figure out this stuff from afar, I hope this helps!

Michael Green - 1/11/2010

If this is how Professor Klinghoffer teaches or taught, I shudder to think at what and how her students think. This is so frighteningly ahistorical and partisan that it is disturbing.

Andrew D. Todd - 1/11/2010

I was struck by Judith Apter Klinghoffer's denunciation of things like Obamacare. I understand that Klinghoffer is now resident in Israel.

Israel is a classic European welfare state, with all the usual branches such as Universal Health Insurance (funded by a progressive income tax), compulsory European-style education to the age of eighteen (Abitur-level, equivalent to junior college in our terms), housing, etc., etc. I realize, of course, that some of these benefits are only available to Jews, in the form of military veterans benefits, and that Israel is a bit less socialist for the minority of Israeli Arabs. The case I heard of involved programs addressing the needs of very young children. However, Israel is at least ashamed of such lapses, and not proud of them, and in that particular case, corrective action has probably been taken by now. Parenthetically, Israel is one of the two western developed countries (the other being Sweden) where famous people are most likely to have messy tax difficulties without being excessively greedy, without getting into Gordon Gecko territory. The tax authorities decide that someone like Ingmar Bergman or Yitzhak Rabin is too much of a big shot for their liking, and that he offends their bourgeois sensibilities, and they set about cutting him down to size.


Israel happens to be in an alliance of expediency with the American Republican party, for the time being, until the Republican Party becomes isolationist, as it was in the 1930's, or something like that. At a certain point, American business will lose interest in oil, and consequently, in the Middle East. Klinghoffer's insistence on Free Enterprise for the United States is a classic example of "communist-party-line-following," and is essentially cynical and hypocritical.

omar ibrahim baker - 1/11/2010

On the surface a rehash of Obama' general record this article is ultimately a hardly hidden anti USA pro Israel epistle in which USA interests are relegated to second priority after Israel's!
As is common with this kind of article one should seek the operative sentences therein.
With a cursory reading and almost at random I have come across three such sentences .

1-The First:
The first sentence better be perceived by pondering its logical sequels. Such as : "Nothing symbolizes more perfectly the irrelevance of the USA/Israel security alliance of an American president than Jews spying on the USA for Israel ( Pollard et all)."
Which is unmistakably the logical and inescapable sequel to Klinghoffer's rationale as in her :
"Nothing symbolizes more perfectly the irrelevance of the ethnicity of an American president than a Nigerian wannabe suicide bomber."

2-The second:
" Obama is using Chicago-style strong-arm techniques at home, while kowtowing to kings and dictators abroad. "
Is a straight forward perversion of the truth .The most flagrant case of kowtowing the whole world has witnessed recently was Obama's hasty total withdrawal of his
" bold" request from Israel to suspend all Settlements construction projects in the occupied Palestinian territories, where in the only "strong arm techniques" used were by AIPAC and the pro Israel and Jewish cabals.

3-The third
sentence , after Iraq's and Afghanistan's highly profitable wars to Israel , is an unmistakable call for another, the third, anti Arab/Islam US war on Iran at, once again, the expense of the USA and for the profit of Israel; namely:

"  Obama’s wish to engage Iran has merely served to embolden its hard line rulers, giving them time to develop their nuclear capabilities, arm proxy terrorist armies, and savagely murder their domestic critics."

Fundamentally Obama is judged by Klinghoffer by his attitude towards Israel, both anticipated and feared, under the guise of a general, supposedly USA centered, reappraisal of his one year old administration.

Should the search continue more of the same with the same implicit, but recently much more explicit from an emboldened clique, message will be found with a clear forewarning message !

Maarja Krusten - 1/10/2010

I should add that is is not clear to me what you meant by the racist bullies comment as it applied to the outcome of the vote in 2008. If you meant what I saw some rightwing bloggers claim in 2008--a sadly comical claim that white people mostly voted for Obama out of a sense of rcial guilt--then my observations in the bravery comment stand. I would add to them that most people in the group that overwhelmingly voated for Obama, young people 18-29, largely do appear to be post-racial, which obviously is good. That speaks well for our future.

If you meant by your "racitst bullies" comment how America was perceived abroad, then my comments about Conrad Black's hand wringing about "great statesmen" and the strength of a democratic society's ability to look at positives and negatives alike represents my perspective. Either way, my confidence in the U.S. stems in part from my having had relatives who were forced to live under Communism and from my gratitude that our lives here in the U.S. are so very much easier than the lives of people in most other countries. I love the U.S. and wish it well. As an Independent voter, I live comfortably and confidently during Democratic and Republican administrations alike as my study of the Presaidency suggests that most govern from the center-left or center-right. Changes, when they occur, tend to be at the margins.

Maarja Krusten - 1/10/2010

I’d be interested in hearing you expand on your assertion that “Candidate Barack Obama challenged Americans to be audacious enough to hope that being perceived as racist bullies was at the root of all their security and economic woes.” Exit polls suggested something else, that Obama was able to attract votes from Independents who are solution oriented and who dislike hyperpartisanship. And to combine that with support from liberal Democrats and lapsed Republicans to beat out his opponents. (Even Richard Nixon’s daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, contributed to the Obama campaign fund in 2008.) As I understand the exit polls, he won by attracting the votes of people who did not like over-heated rhetoric and fear-mongering. He won not by tearing down America or signaling fear of people unlike himself, but by talking about his confidence in our ability to meet tough challenges. Reagan did somewhat the same. There’s no reason why a white Republican man or woman can’t run using a similar, “the road ahead is tough but we’re in it together and working together as people of good will, red state and blue state alike, we’ll succeed” approach, albeit modified somewhat to meet ideological requirements.

I’m curious as to how you as an historian could have read the exit polls from 2008 and concluded that people thought they were racist bullies. And that this was a motivator for voting. As far as I can tell, Obama received few votes from racist bullies. People of that ilk tend not to be stirred by the type of rhetoric candidate Obama used (“I don’t see a red America or a blue America”). They tend to be small minded and unable to value individuals unlike themselves. Racists cling to the known and fear and demonize “the other.” So candidate Obama’s “let’s roll up our sleeves for the good of the nation” speeches wouldn’t work with them. To appeal to people like that, you’d have to flatter them and make them feel important and dominant and special rather than to use a “what you can do for your country” approach.

Politics aside (keep in mind that I vote sometimes for Republicans and sometimes for Democrats), I think the fact that Obama had to have known that some people would say some terrible things about him is a hurdle we historians have to consider in writing about his Presidency in the future. That he still chose to run to lead the nation speaks of a man of tremendous courage and character. We white people who have led easy, privileged lives know little about such courage. We walk down the street or into stores and are treated with automatic respect (which we may not always deserve) based on our skin color. Most of us know so little about real challenges. That our lives have been so easy compared to his, especially when growing up and going to school as a minority, does not mean we can’t honor his courage in choosing to run and for being willing to accept some awfully ugly attacks. We can only hope to be so brave ourselves in the face of much less.

Maarja Krusten - 1/10/2010

My field of speciality is Presidential history and I have a different take on some of this. I find that you err in positing a monolithic audience among voters. It is very difficult for Presidents to pitch speeches so that they reach a wide spectrum of voters. I’ll touch on character and temperament, not discussion of policy, which I leave to others. (I’m an Independent and not an ideologue.) My interests center on management and leadership.

In painting pictures of the world, what works with some listerners or readers falls flat with others. I’ll provide one example. Conrad Black recently asserted on the National Review site that “Obama’s pursuit of instant gratification in the most complicated areas — arms control, the environment, the Middle East — and his feckless apologies for great statesmen of the recent past, including Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill, and Eisenhower, have dismayed America’s allies and delighted its rivals.” I’ve studied the events of the Second World War closely in an effort to understand why the once sovereign and democratic nation in which my parents were born was allowed by the West to fall behind the Iron Curtain in 1945. What I learned certainly suggests that the men Black listed were far from infallible or perfect and the situations with which they grappled far from ideal.

As an historian, I’m obviously not the intended audience of a writer such as Black. Who then is his intended audience? Stephen Ducat, who blogs at Huffington Post, wrote of an attack on Obama during the 2008 campaign that it wasn’t aimed at so-called Security Moms, as political operatives labeled one group of voters in 2004. Rather, in his view, “The primary audience, I would argue, is the other side of the gender gap, the ‘Insecurity Men,’ male voters unconsciously anxious about their masculinity, and who are generally well disposed toward Republican candidates. . . . Men as a group tend to be much more troubled than are women over the possibility that they might have traits of the other gender. . . . the findings of my own research and that of others have shown that conservative men are much more likely to suffer from the fear that they might be ‘feminine,’ than are liberal males. One way this femiphobia gets managed is through projection -- by hating, denigrating, and attacking other men whose masculinity is imagined as somehow deficient.”

If this is true (and I don’t know that it is), then Obama needs to find a way to speak both to liberal men and conservative men. And, of course, to women. And to anxious people and to secure ones. I am not an “Insecurity Man” and I do not view U.S. history as triumphalist or deconstructivist. I am comfortable with history as a discipline which seeks to understand what happened and why without trying to put people up on pedestals or to knock them off of them. My Christian faith plays a part in that as well. I’m only too aware that humans are frail and fallible and that we all struggle and often fail. That we Americans can talk about such struggles in our nation’s history to me is what makes this a better place to live than countries where one must pretend that leaders are infallible and that every action taken is great. Because I have such faith in the U.S., I’m not going to be as worried as a Contad Black.

Maureen Dowd in her column today urges Obama to be less like Spock. If Obama were Nixonian, he would send Biden out to give Agnew-esque speeches telling opponents to put on their big boy pants, or worse, LOL. I don’t think Obama, or President Cool, as Maureen Dowd calls him, will do that. Obama seems intellectual, analytical, calmly centered, not easily rattled, interested in diverse views and collaborative solution-finding, disinclined to use hot rhetoric. He seems as courageous and manly as George W. Bush, but with a different personality. Obama’s is a quiet type of calm and manliness, he seems as stoic as Bush in the face of political assaults. Like Bush, he will need to tap such reserves.

Time will tell how Obama’s approach plays out in the world of politics, which often reminds me of high school. Insecure bullies and “mean girls” often set the tone, rather than the securely centered, self-actualized and bookish intellectuals. Nixon integrated both in his personality--by some accounts he would have made a good history professor, yet his insecurities and desire to “do unto others before they do unto you” did him in. Obama, by contrast, seems professorial and less tormented than Nixon.

jose marie - 1/9/2010

Join the conversation about the Obama Health care plan at http://www.obamahealthcareplan.org