Everyone makes mistakes, and the Obama administration has made its fair share. But harping on mistakes is easy. The tragedy of most presidential administrations rests not in the errors they make, but in the opportunities they miss — and in the belief that no one else can seize them.
It’s hard to recall the hopes that swirled around Barack Obama in 2008. Many believed he would be a more bipartisan figure than George W. Bush. Today, some liberals concede this didn’t happen — and, in their bipartisan way, they blame Republicans.
Yes, Republicans are partisan. But Obama had a unique opportunity. He could have governed from the center, aiming to split the GOP. Instead, as he put it in a meeting with Republicans in 2009, “Elections have consequences.”
He missed his opportunity by moving into partisan mode. The result was the decimation of his party in 2010, 2014 and 2016, and policies that got no GOP buy-in because the administration gave the GOP no look-in. That wasn’t how Harry Truman did it.
The administration also missed opportunities in Central America, a failure symbolized by its legalistic response to the removal of leftist Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Zelaya’s ouster, it pointed to an impending breakdown of governance in the region.
Today, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are among the most dangerous places in the world. One result is that, while illegal immigration to the United States from Mexico peaked in 2007, it has grown steadily from Central America. The Honduran crisis was a warning sign we didn’t heed, and an opportunity to focus on the region that the administration didn’t take.
It also missed on free trade. The Obama administration wasn’t terrible on trade, but it didn’t try hard to be good. The 2009 financial crisis offered an opportunity for leadership. Instead, the administration indulged in bits of protectionism and stalled, or even rowed back, on pending free trade deals.
It didn’t start to emphasize trade until 2012, when Obama promised to “double American exports over the next five years.” That hasn’t come close to happening, and while that isn’t all his fault, we could have done better if Obama hadn’t wasted his first four years.
There were other missed opportunities, such as Obama’s decision to side with the Iranian government, not the Green Revolution protesters, in 2009. But his biggest whiff was his skepticism about domestic energy production, especially the fracking of natural gas.
He couldn’t stop the boom, and, after 2012, he started saying nice things about it. But before then, his mantra was that “we can’t drill our way out of this problem.” He praised natural gas, but the words were empty; he was much more interested in “breaking our oil addiction.”
Obama said he didn’t want the perfect (i.e., his ideas) to be the enemy of the good (i.e., drilling). But we got more emphasis on climate change, and more new regulations that limit fracking, than we got praise for drilling. In practice, he acted as if the good was his enemy. Nothing would have helped us in more ways than producing more energy efficiently at home. With presidential backing instead of obstructions, we could have had more good jobs, more cheap energy, a poorer and weaker Russia — and yes, less carbon, too.
We got fracking despite D.C. And there’s a lesson in that: The opportunities Washington misses can often be redeemed — slowly and painfully — by the states and the people.
In 2008, Obama was welcomed as a messiah. That was foolish. Even at their best, presidents can seize only a few opportunities. Blaming presidential administrations for missing opportunities is necessary, but it’s no substitute for praising, and defending, the system that allows all of us to pursue them freely.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.