Presidential reputations oscillate for years after the moving trucks have pulled up to the White House. So it is with Barack Obama.
The Senate health-care vote — now postponed until after the July 4 recess — may determine whether the Affordable Care Act crowns Obama’s legislative record or whether it will be mourned as a presidential road not taken like Woodrow Wilson’s dreams for the League of Nations.
But any assessment of Obama’s presidential legacy now has to include his well-intentioned dithering in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deliberate effort to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. As the Washington Post put it last week in its definite account of White House hand-wringing: “In political terms, Russian interference was the crime of the century, an unprecedented and largely successful destabilising attack on American democracy.”
Obama’s cautious response to ironclad evidence of Putin’s direct involvement was in keeping with the foreign policy approach that had governed his presidency: “Don’t do stupid ****.” That doctrine, expressed by Obama in private during a 2014 Asian trip, had mostly served him well during his first term. But long before Putin’s backstairs embrace of Donald Trump’s candidacy, Syria had illustrated the limitations of a president who always tiptoed through the tulips.
Trump’s recent tweets on the Russian front bizarrely argue that Obama single-handedly “colluded or obstructed, and it did the Dems and Crooked Hillary no good”. In truth, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who should be listed in the dictionary as the antonym of “statesman”) deserves his share of the blame for governmental inaction.
As Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous reveal in the Post article, top Obama officials briefed the congressional leadership in secret in early September 2016 about Putin’s plotting. But any hope of a joint bipartisan response died when McConnell challenged the validity of the evidence, linking the hacking of the Democratic National Committee to the Kremlin.
In Obama’s defence, there were valid reasons for slow-walking an American response to Putin. The president was rightly concerned about provoking a Russian cyber-attack on voting machines on Election Day. And Obama and his top aides brooded over whether any public announcement would merely feed Trump’s bleats about a “rigged” election.
In hindsight, it was the wrong call.
Democracy requires openness and honesty in the belief that the voters can handle the truth. But Obama, confident in Clinton’s electoral prospects, instead chose stealth and indirection. A governmental statement in early October about Russia’s “active measures” did not even mention Putin by name. And within minutes, that hedged three-paragraph document was upstaged by the release of Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape about the joys of grabbing women.
A presidential race decided by 78,000 votes in three states was awash with might-have-beens. In all likelihood, Clinton would be president right now if Obama had gone public in September or October with what he knew about Putin’s efforts to pilfer the election. But even if such presidential truth-telling had boomeranged politically, it would have set a name-and-shame precedent about how the United States responds to all foreign efforts to tamper with an election.
The closest parallel to Obama’s pre-election agony was the choice that Lyndon Johnson faced at a similar juncture in the fall of 1968. Johnson learned that Richard Nixon was working with Anna Chennault to convince the South Vietnamese government to scuttle peace talks with Hanoi. In his new Nixon biography, John A. Farrell found smoking-gun memos detailing how the Republican presidential nominee successfully tried to “monkey wrench” any Vietnam breakthrough before the election.
Johnson’s volcanic Texas personality had little in common with Obama’s wilfully calm self-restraint. But even though LBJ at the time likened Nixon’s actions to “treason”, he too ultimately kept his silence before the election, in part, because he could not conclusively prove his case.
What unites Johnson and Obama through the mists of time was their mutual shock that such tactics would ever be employed in a presidential election — either by a sinister figure in American politics or a foreign leader steeped in KGB espionage.
Now that America has lost its collective innocence, any president, beginning with Trump, who fails to respond to Russian provocations deserves to be excoriated by both parties.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Walter Shapiro is a columnist for Roll Call, a lecturer in Political Science at Yale and a fellow at the Brennan Centre for Justice.