My very early impressions are of someone who doesn't quite understand the burden and responsibilities of being president. Now, maybe noone can possibly anticipate and understand the burden and responsibilities of being president until actually becoming president. But, as I mentioned during the campaign, Candidate Obama was making promises that President Obama would be very unlikely to keep, such as rapidly withdrawing the troops from Iraq. Without doubt, the troops will come home, but they will do so on a schedule much closer to the one drawn up by President Bush in the Status of Forces Agreement than to the one promised by Obama. A prime example of that was Obama's prohibition on lobbyists serving in his administration; a prohibition that was dropped at the first sign of conflict. Obama granted a waiver to his new rule so that William Lynn, a former vice president of and lobbyist for Raytheon, one of the largest defense contractors in DC, could be named Deputy Secretary of Defense. While it is concerning having a lobbyist placed so highly in the DoD, what is more concerning is the fact that Obama was willing to break a campaign promise and newly-installed rule so quickly. This gives me the sense that Obama doesn't quite get the connection between what the president says and what the president does, or the magnitude of each and every word that comes out of his mouth.
Similarly, Obama's retreat from the "Buy America" language contained in the stimulus legislation sends the same message. Obama told the Fox Network that ""I think it would be a mistake ... at a time when worldwide trade is declining for us to start sending a message that somehow we're just looking after ourselves and not concerned with world trade." Wasn't world-wide trade declining when Obama started discussing re-opening NAFTA? And if sending a strong free-trade message is a priority, why did Obama reduce the prioritization given to trade and nominate someone with no experience in trade to be his trade representative? Again, I get the sense that Obama thinks that the things he says don't matter to the degree that they do.
His interview to Al Arabiya televsion pretty much confirms this sense. In it, Obama said that:
Do the American people see the Muslim world as their enemy? Do the American people not already realize that the Muslim world is filled with people who want to live better lives? If that's the case, why have the American people expended their blood and treasure to protect and liberate Muslims from tyranny and oppression in places that often had little strategic value to the US, such as Somalia and Kosovo, not to mention in Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq?
My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task.
And Obama's grasp of history seems to be a bit shaky as well. Were things really better between the US and the Muslim world "20 or 30 years ago"? As Jeff Jacoby writes in today's Boston Globe:
Twenty years ago, American hostages were being tortured by their Hezbollah captors in Beirut and hundreds of grief-stricken families were in mourning for their loved ones, murdered by Libyan terrorists as they flew home for Christmas on Pan Am Flight 103. Thirty years ago, the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, proclaimed America "the Great Satan," and inspired his acolytes to storm the US embassy and hold scores of Americans hostage. Meanwhile, Islamist mobs were destroying US embassies in Pakistan and Libya, and staging anti-American riots in other countries. Radical Islam's hatred of the United States is not a recent phenomenon, it has nothing to do with "respect," and it isn't going to be extinguished by sweet words - not even those of so sweet a speaker as our new president.
I know that US foreign policy towards the Muslim world isn't often conducted solely for the benefit of the Muslim people, and certainly there have been disastrously bad decisions made in the past (the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh comes to mind). And certainly, the US can and should be more critical of Israel and push Israel to make greater concessions in the West Bank to advance whatever is left of the peace process. But to act as if the US has done nothing in recent years to help the Muslim world, to ignore the sacrifices that this country has made for the Muslim world, and to insinuate that the hatred Islam feel for the US is caused by problems of "respect," is beneath the president of the United States. Obama seemed to feel the need to appear humble in this interview, and that's understandable. But, he went too far. As Charles Krauthammer writes, "In these 20 years, this nation has done more for suffering and oppressed Muslims than any nation, Muslim or non-Muslim, anywhere on Earth. Why are we apologizing?"
Again, it's far too early to pass any kind of judgment. It's certainly possible that Obama will grow into the job, and I expect that he will. But these early "returns" confirm my fear that Obama is too inexperienced for this job; that he doesn't understand the difficult choices that come with the most powerful job on the planet; that he believes in himself to such a degree that he is willing to break major campaign promises just days into his administration; and that he doesn't get the gravity with which his words are heard by others. Time will tell if he comes to understand these things.
Feel free to comment on your own impressions on the newborn Obama presidency.