Dar-Wei Chen: A Commander and a President

By Dar-Wei Chen, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published October 25, 2011

Last week, Commander in Chief Barack Obama helped strategize the killing of yet another big-time major enemy leader, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. This achievement liberates the Libyan people from Gadhafi’s iron-fisted rule and undoubtedly makes the world safer.

For Obama, Gadhafi’s demise is the fourth-major foreign policy triumph: Besides Gadhafi, he successfully used a drone attack to kill al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki in late September and he recently announced the Iraq war would be over by the end of the year (a campaign promise). And in a memorable moment this summer, Obama presided over a covert operation into Pakistan that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.

Even with these accomplishments, Obama is still in trouble for 2012. Commander in Chief is not his full-time job — he is President Obama too. So far, Obama has achieved mixed economic results. A USA Today article last year found that his stimulus plan, according to economists, created nearly 3 million jobs and averted “what could have been called Great Depression 2.0.” However, the country’s unemployment rate has remained at an unacceptable 9 percent minimum for almost his entire presidency.

Fair or not, Republicans are going to slam Obama’s economic policies in an effort to win the 2012 presidential election. However, they will have a hard time tarnishing his sterling foreign policy record, which brings up an interesting point: The juxtaposition of Obama’s achievements in foreign policy and the economy is somewhat puzzling. How can someone be so efficient and ruthless on one front and, at times, be frustratingly ineffective on another? The GOP will try to explain this through its core message: Obama has failed on the economy because he is “in over his head,” in the words of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. But what if another reason existed that explains Obama’s economic woes?

Obama has to work with Congress to pass legislation. As you might know, Congress includes people called Republicans, who are united with one goal. Cutting down the national debt? Not according to their massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. Advancing the nation’s economy with conservative solutions? Maybe, but not their top goal. According to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Contrast Obama’s predicament on the economy with what he deals with when he becomes Commander in Chief Obama. Obama can get deeply involved in the armed forces and — short of declaring war — can do almost whatever he wants in regards to military policy. Republicans cannot do little to stop him beyond press attacks – admittedly, one of the few things they do well.

Obama’s performances on the economy and foreign affairs are more explainable now. When the GOP purposely tries to bring down his presidency through intransigence and obstruction, Obama hasn’t performed as well as he would like. For example, Obama’s stimulus plan (for all its merits) was not large enough, according to economists including Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman.

Krugman says the original stimulus was watered down with ineffective tax cuts and scaled back aid to local and state governments. Want to guess which party championed the tax cuts and reduced government aid? Conservatives might say that perhaps Obama hasn't performed well on the economy because economics is not his strong suit – nothing to do with obstruction. However, during his days working as a community organizer, Obama specifically sought out struggling families to understand their problems. If anything, he should have better ideas about helping those in need than handling foreign affairs.

When Obama answers to himself, he is a dominant force. This statement is not to say that he has been ineffective when working with Congress (a simple Google search brings up a litany of accomplishments) — the point is that when Obama is not hamstrung by a radicalized GOP, he has been pretty damn good. Maybe all America needs is a shot of pure Obama.

Dar-Wei Chen can be reached at chendw@umich.edu.