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Needed: Less Drift, More Mastery

When President Barack Obama addresses foreign leaders at the UN General Assembly and the G-20 Summit later this week, it’s a safe prediction that no one will boo or shout insults at him, at least within the halls. The hearing he gets in New York and Pittsburgh will reflect the astronomical popularity and hopes for his success that Obama enjoys around the globe.

International Obamamania began during the presidential campaign, and its epicenter was Berlin, where Candidate Obama proclaimed himself a “citizen of the world” to a euphoric crowd and world-wide applause.

However, nine months into his administration, many of the president’s admirers around the world are waking up to the trouble he faces in the U.S. On my last trip to Europe, I was peppered with questions about health care — not because there was great interest in the fate of the public option, but because Europeans realize the stakes do not stop at the water’s edge.

If Obama loses that fight, he’ll stand little chance of having a cap-and-trade bill to sign before the climate change summit in Copenhagen in December. And if he suffers a one-two defeat, he’ll have an even tougher time next year persuading the Senate to ratify a new U.S.-Russia strategic-arms treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which is crucial to the viability of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Partly because Obama is so highly regarded outside the U.S., there has been a presumption that he is the victim of Republican opposition that has run amok (Congressman Joe Wilson’s heckling during the health care speech was big news overseas). But now there’s an additional worry about the president himself, and whether he is up to the task of managing his domestic agenda with sufficient success to advance his foreign policy goals.

Nearly a century ago, in the fall of 1914—at the outset of what would be a long and devastating global crisis—Walter Lippmann wrote a short book titled Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest. There is growing unrest today among Obama’s well-wishers. Some of their concern is based on recognition of the unprecedented problems this president inherited — and now owns. Some is based on revulsion at the tactics and strategy of those who want to help him fail.

But increasingly, there is a sense that Obama has allowed too much drift and shown too little mastery of the power that comes with his office. As a result, his opponents were able to seize the offensive during the summer.

That may be changing now that the fall has begun, and if so, it’s changing from the top. Obama’s basic toughness, determination, communications skills, and pragmatism should not be underestimated. He seems to have adjusted to the refusal of many Republicans -- and more than a few Democrats -- to act on the self-evident proposition that it takes two parties to achieve bipartisanship. Having absorbed a hail of low blows, he’s taken off his own gloves, and he’s prepared to do some selective bullying from the bully pulpit.

Obama’s address to the nation on health care was a promising attempt to stop the drift and assert the necessary mastery. Quite a few Europeans I know, including some I saw on my recent trip, stayed up until the early hours of the morning to watch it. They knew that that speech—and, crucially, the way Obama translates his rhetoric into hard, sometimes bare-knuckle politicking during the coming weeks—will be far more consequential for his effectiveness as a world leader than what he says at the UN and G-20 this week.

Last Friday, Hillary Clinton came to Brookings to preview the administration’s priorities for those meetings. Given her own bruising experience with health care reform as First Lady, I asked her about the risk of collateral damage to foreign policy if the Obama administration is beaten on that issue.

She rejected the premise that there is necessarily a linkage between legislative battles in Washington and diplomatic and security challenges overseas. She pointed out that Bill Clinton was able to take tough action on Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo despite Congress’s failure to pass healthcare reform in 1994. She added that, in her mind, the issue was moot, since she is confident a reform passing this time around. She counseled those — like me— who are worried about a vicious circle of administration defeats to “calm down here, take two aspirin, go to bed, think about it in the morning.”

Well, I’ve tried that, and in the cold light of a new day, I think it’s still an open question whether Obama can get off the defensive at home and take full advantage of his standing abroad. Here’s hoping his Secretary of State is right — not just for the administration’s sake, but for the nation’s and the world’s.

  • Strobe Talbott is president of the Brookings Institution. Talbott, whose career spans journalism, government service, and academe, is an expert on U.S. foreign policy, with specialties on Europe, Russia, South Asia, and nuclear arms control.

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