Obama Era Has Already Turned to Dust

For his last two years, the U.S. president has to serve as a powerless chatterbox. His only scope is in diplomacy, his weakest domain.

Barack Obama has a long, agonizing farewell before him. Politically, the former messiah has already turned to dust. But he must spend two more years as a ghost in the White House. The president might as well resign and devote himself to the game of golf. It would hardly make a difference.

The congressional elections have de facto sealed the end of the Obama era. Along with the House of Representatives, the Republicans now control the Senate. The legislative scope of the president has shrunk to dwarfish proportions. Vetoes and decrees are the only ephemeral instruments of power that remain available to him. Anyone who thinks that a new era of compromise will come from this situation is dreaming, and still succumbing to that magical wishful thinking that Obama stirred up so intoxicatingly in his fine speeches early on in his career.

The conservatives will not grant their enemy, whom they have fought obsessively for six years, any success during the rest of his time in office. Their preferred agent will continue to be obstruction. Why should they deviate from this formula that has earned them an election triumph in Congress? The Republicans want to portray Obama as a powerless chatterbox to the bitter end, in order to prepare the ground for one of their own as a successor in the White House. Only a Republican president can be a strong president, supported by a Republican majority in Congress — this will be their message in 2016.

To demonstrate their willingness to work constructively, the Republicans have been snowing Obama under with bills. The president must then reject them. Who is intended to play the destructive role in this game?

Now and then the majority in Congress is prepared to compromise: on the budget, on the free trade agreement with the EU (TTIP) or the Asian countries (TPP). But a compromise will always bear a Republican signature, and will then only take place if it appears that it will be beneficial in achieving a victory in the presidential election of 2016. All of Washington is polarized in view of this target date. Obama is now standing in the way like a wax figure from a time long past — even to the Democrats, who have already kept him away from their own election campaign.

Domestically, there is little the president can do; like most of his predecessors, he will focus on foreign policy until the end of his term. In this area he is able to bypass Congress.

Diplomacy has never been counted among Obama’s strengths. In Syria, he drew a red line — and then backed away from the possibility of a military intervention, despite the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s army. His indecision in the Middle East has contributed to the creation of a vacuum, which has been filled with radical extremists in the form of the Islamic State. In addition, there have been dozens of failed attempts to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. The American president has been walked all over. Rarely has a U.S. head of state been met with so little respect in the world. And this weakness seems to be obvious: Is it a coincidence that Vladimir Putin snatched Crimea and destabilized the Donbas region while Obama sat indecisively in the White House?

The greatest chance of a foreign policy coup was the nuclear dispute with Iran, which could still be ended this month after more than 12 years. But the regime in Tehran is aware of Obama’s weakness. Whether this is conducive to a workable agreement remains to be seen.

As things stand, after a brilliant start and a premature Nobel Peace Prize, Obama has to face the grim prospect that despite acceptable economic indicators, he will go down as one of the weakest presidents ever in the history of the United States. The closing credits of the tragic saga of the rhetorical artist who set out to improve the world, and failed miserably, have already begun.

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