Obama in 2013: a credibility crisis

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam
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U.S. President Barack Obama came into office in 2008 promising to forge a transformational path for America and repair its standing abroad. He wanted to walk in the steps of Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, a goal that seems more remote today than ever before, largely due to the twists and turns of the domestic and foreign policies in 2013.

From Pennsylvania to Berlin, Cairo to Damascus, the U.S. President is suffering from a major credibility crisis. Whether it is the lousy web-launch of his biggest legislative accomplishment, the Healthcare law, or the collapse of the Syria strategy, to the embarrassing leaks by Edward Snowden on the National Security Agency (NSA) secret spying apparatus, and botched transition in Egypt; Obama’s 2013 has been a series of pitfalls that could, if not overhauled, suffocate the second term agenda and undermine his legacy.

October was a month from hell for the Obama administration. Domestically, it started with a government shutdown for 15 days after a budget stalemate between Democrats and Republicans, the first since 1996, crippled Washington and forced the President to cancel his diplomatic trip to Asia. On Oct. 1, the long awaited healthcare website that Obama promised would operate “the same way you shop for a TV on Amazon” crashed upon launching, embarrassing the administration and exposing cracks in the law that stands at the core of Obama’s legacy.

Obama’s foreign policy did not fare better either. Obama’s Syria strike plan collapsed, angering allies in France and across the region, not necessarily because they wanted military action, but more out of frustration with waning U.S. influence. The failure made its allies question its security commitment to the region. The Syrian conflict is turning to a microcosm of how wrong things can go in the Middle East when the U.S. sits in the back seat and lets regional proxies and a ruthless regime take the lead. As things stand today, Washington is shifting gears towards a containment and counterterrorism strategy in Syria, as the regime grows more relentless in the use of violence and the moderate opposition becomes marginalized.

In 2013, Obama’s approval rating also plummeted in America. His support among Americans is now 43 % according to the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, compared to 53% at the beginning of the year.

Joyce Karam

In October as well, Snowden, the NSA leaker who sought exile in Russia, struck again. This time with revelations that Washington was snooping on Europe’s most powerful leader, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The scandal created a public diplomacy storm for the U.S. across Europe. Germany, where Obama was most popular all during his Presidency and where he gave two key speeches, was furious. Obama’s approval rating plummeted from 88% to 43% among Germans, and intelligence gathering faltered between the two governments. The Snowden leaks have had a huge political cost on the Obama administration in 2013, driving worldwide distrust in both the NSA’s techniques, and its ability to maintain discretion.

Alarming numbers

In 2013, Obama’s approval rating also plummeted in America. His support among Americans is now 43 % according to the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, compared to 53% at the beginning of the year. More worrisome for the administration should be the Democratic party losing the lead against Republicans in the next midterm elections according to a CNN poll. If the Republicans maintain a strong majority in the House in the November 2014 elections, the gridlock will likely continue, while accomplishing any Roosevelt-like legislative wins on immigration reform or taxation will become very unlikely for Obama.

The White House has a very short period to turn things around in early 2014. They can start by changing people’s perception on the Healthcare law and restoring public confidence in Obama.

In the Middle East, the Obama administration is heavily involved in two very key issues, the Iran nuclear negotiations and the Peace Process. This is an opportunity for the White House to regain credibility by avoiding the ill-fated Syria strategy. Heavy consultations, security reassurances, and Presidential involvement with the allies will be crucial for diplomacy to truly succeed without backfiring on the stability of the region. Fumbling the Iran ball will change the landscape of the Middle East in ways that neither Syria nor Iraq nor the Peace Process have so far.

Obama’s credibility crisis is self-made and not the result of his divided opponents at home or the rivals abroad. The ‘red line’ on Chemical Weapons use in Syria was Obama’s, as was the healthcare website was contracted by the administration, and the Snowden case highlighted gaps in security clearances at the NSA, overseen by Obama. In order to change the trajectory, Obama will need a major shift in policy and management from the U.S. President himself, in order to transcend what is looking more like a Lyndon Johnson or a Harry Truman legacy.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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