Walter Russell Mead: Falling Between Two Stools

Roundup: Historians' Take

Walter Russell Mead is professor of foreign affairs and the humanities at Bard College and editor-at-large of The American Interest.

President Obama is now passing through what one must hope for both his sake and ours are the worst moments of a presidency no longer young. Abroad, the intervention in Libya has not had the quick and clear results he had hoped.  While things may still go well, and one devoutly hopes that they do, US prestige is deeply engaged in a confused civil war in which all NATO’s firepower has been unable to turn the tide.  As British and French advisers on the ground struggle to mold the rebels into an effective force and the allies thrash around to develop a politically responsible and accountable rebel leadership, the military’s lack of confidence in the civilian strategy is palpable.

At home, the President has been wounded both by his successes and his failures.  Colin Powell referred to the US victory against Saddam Hussein as a “catastrophic success”; President Obama now has a couple of those of his own.  The economic stimulus package aroused a fear on the hustings and, increasingly, in the bond markets about the looming fiscal catastrophe.  The health care bill, an achievement the President expected and believed would cement both his place in history and a new era of liberal Democratic hegemony in American politics, continues to weaken the administration; the patient is not (yet) accepting the transplant.

These successes would not be so damaging if it were not for the core failure to date of the Obama presidency: the failure to deliver what looks to most Americans like the promise of an improving economy.  Part of the problem is international; the turmoil in the Middle East, the global surge in commodity prices and the waning credibility of the dollar combine to push gas prices to $4.00.  For tens of millions of American families the price of gas is both an economic indicator and a key variable in their disposable income.  Add to that the persisting weakness in the housing market, where millions of families have watched the value of their prime asset shrink or disappear, continuing weak growth in employment and stagnation in wages, and there is a pervasive national sense that life is not getting better on President Obama’s watch....

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