His lack of faith in American exceptionalism has dashed any hope of a 'transformational' presidency.
By FOUAD AJAMI
In one of the illuminating, unscripted moments of the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama said—much to the dismay of his core constituency—that the Reagan presidency had been "transformational" in a way that Bill Clinton's hadn't. Needless to say, Mr. Obama aspired to a transformational presidency of his own.
He had risen against the background of a deep economic recession, amid unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; he could be forgiven the conviction that the country was ready for an economic and political overhaul. He gave it a mighty try. But the transformational dream was not to be. The country had limits. Mr. Obama couldn't convince enough Americans that the twin pillars of his political program—redistribution at home, retrenchment abroad—are worthy of this country's ambitions and vocation.
Temperament mattered. Ronald Reagan was the quintessential optimist, his faith in America boundless. He had been given his mandate amid economic distress—the great inflation of the 1970s, high unemployment and taxation—and a collapse of American authority abroad. Through two terms and a time of great challenges, he had pulled off one of the great deeds of political-economic restoration. He made tax cuts and economic growth the cornerstone of that recovery. Economic freedom at home had a corollary in foreign affairs—the pursuit of liberty, a course that secured a victorious end to the Cold War. The "captive nations" were never in doubt, American power was on the side of liberty.
By that Reagan standard, Mr. Obama has been a singular failure. The crippling truth of the Obama presidency is the pessimism of the man, the low expectations he has for this republic. He had not come forth to awaken this country to its stirring first principles, but to manage its decline at home and abroad. So odd an outcome, a man with an inspiring biography who provides no inspiration, a personal story of "The Audacity of Hope" yielding a leader who deep down believes that America's best days are behind it.
Amid the enthusiasm of his ascent to power, the choreography of a brilliant campaign, and a justifiable sense of pride that an African-American had risen to the summit of political power, it had been hard to tease out the pessimism at the core of Mr. Obama's vision. His economic program—the vaunted stimulus, the bailout of the automobile industry, the determination to overhaul the entire health-care system—gave away a bureaucratic vision: It was rule by emergency decree, as it were. No Reaganesque faith in the society for this leader.
In the nature of things, Mr. Obama could not take the American people into his confidence; he could not openly take up the thesis of America's decline. But there was an early signal, in April 2009 in Strasbourg, during a celebration of NATO's 60th anniversary, when he was confronted with the cherished principle of American "exceptionalism."
Asked whether he believed in the school of "American exceptionalism" that sees America as "uniquely qualified to lead the world," he gave a lawyerly answer: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." We were not always going to be right, he added, "all have to compromise and that includes us."
Events would supply evidence of Mr. Obama's break with the history of America's faith in liberty in distant lands. The herald of change was at heart a man who doubted the ability of political freedom to skip borders, and to bring about the emancipation of peoples subjected to brutal tyrannies. The great upheaval in Iran in the first summer of his presidency exposed the flaws and contradictions of the Obama diplomacy.
A people had risen against their tyrannical rulers, but Mr. Obama was out to conciliate these rulers. America's support wouldn't have altered that cruel balance of force on the ground. But henceforth it would become part of the narrative of liberty that when Iran rose in rebellion, the pre-eminent liberal power sat out a seminal moment in Middle Eastern history.
In his encounters with the foreign world, Mr. Obama gave voice to a steady and unsettling expression of penance. We had made our own poor bed in distant lands, Mr. Obama believed. We had been aggressive and imperial in the wars we waged, and in our steady insistence that our way held out the promise for other nations. In that narrative of American guilt, the Islamic world was of central importance. It was in that vast, tormented world that Mr. Obama sought to make his mark, it was there he believed we had been particularly egregious.
But the truth of it, a truth that would erupt with fury in the upheaval of that Arab Spring now upon us, is that the peoples of that region needed our assistance and example. This was the Arabs' 1989, their supreme moment of historical agency, a time when younger people broke with their culture's history of evasion and scapegoating. For once the "Arab Street" was not gripped by anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, for once it wasn't looking beyond its geography for alien demons. But we could not really aid these rebellions, for our touch, Mr. Obama insisted, would sully them. These rebellions, his administration lamely asserted, had to be thoroughly indigenous.
We had created—and were spooked by—phantoms of our own making. A visit last month to Syria's embattled city of Hama by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford ought to have shattered, once and for all, the thesis of a rampant anti-Americanism in Arab lands. The American envoy was given a moving reception, he was met with flowers and olive branches by those struggling to end the tyranny of the Assad family. News of America's decline had not reached the streets of Hama. The regime may have denied them air and light and knowledge, but they knew that in our order of nations America remains unrivalled in the hope it holds out for thwarted populations.
Americans' confident belief in the uniqueness, yes the exceptionalism, of their country, rested on an essential faith in liberty, and individualism and anti-statism at home, and in the power of our example, and muscle now and then, in foreign lands. Mr. Obama is ill-at-ease with that worldview. Our country has had pessimism on offer and has invariably rejected it. At crucial points in its history, it has remained unshaken in the belief that tomorrow can be better.
In 2008, shaken by a severe economic recession and disillusioned by a difficult war in Iraq, Americans voted for charisma and biography. The electorate could not be certain of the bet it made, for Mr. Obama had been agile, by his own admission he had been a blank slate onto which his varied supporters could project their hopes and preferences. Next time around, it should be easier. The man at the helm has now played his hand.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and co-chairman of Hoover's Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.