By Martin Schram McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
April 25, 2014
Geometrically speaking, it just can’t happen, architects sniff. Yet people who work for presidents or cover them for a living know that it does.
Presidents sometimes, somehow manage to paint themselves into a corner in their Oval Office. And President Obama may even hold the unenviable indoor record for Oval Office corner-painting.
Today we will look at a few of the lowlights of how and why this reputation has befallen a president for whom so many of us had highest hopes on the day he first entered that Oval Office.
But his first corner-painting lowlight actually began before that, early in his campaign for the presidency. On Aug. 2, 2007, then-Sen. Obama declared: “As president, I will close Guantanamo …”
But he apparently hadn’t thought through just how he would make the closure of Guantanamo happen, or where he would transfer the Guantanamo prisoners who were considered the most dangerous. Or, would Congress follow his lead?
In his 2014 State of the Union Address, at the beginning of the second year of his second term as president, Obama was still promising to close Guantanamo.
Fast-forwarding through the years, we will whiz past the successes: An economy that is much improved, and (have you heard?) a reformed health-care system that guarantees you can’t lose or be denied health insurance due to a pre-existing medical problem.
Internationally, the president surprised even his own advisers when, during an August 2012 press conference, he drew his now-infamous “red line” in Syria. He had intended to issue a stern warning to Syria’s murderous President Bashar al-Assad, but went much further than planned. He blurted that for Syria’s murderous regime to use large quantities of chemical weapons, or even just move them, would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus.”
With that single brushstroke, Obama suddenly painted himself into a corner from which he would never really emerge, in the minds of many world policymakers. Just what the American president’s words and threats mean? Indeed, Obama took no military response when Syrian chemical weapons were used. What message did that send?
When crisis erupted in Ukraine, and that once-Soviet sphere nation turned away from Moscow to align itself to Europe’s economy, Russian President Vladimir Putin brazenly sent troops into Crimea wearing uniforms without insignias and Crimean citizens voting to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Now Putin has amassed troops along Ukraine’s eastern border — a prelude to an invasion?
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry issued tough-worded warnings that harsh responses would follow any further aggression. Isolating new sanctions? With Russia providing a third of Europe’s natural gas and Russian oligarchs so heavily invested in Europe, the European Union’s leaders have been shamefully reluctant to respond to Putin with tough sanctions.
The red lines drawn yet again by Obama and Kerry seem only to provide diplomatic decoration. “The Ukraine dither,” sniffed a Washington Post editorial headline, and the subhead added: “The Obama administration disregards its own ‘red line.’” Of course, had Obama not drawn the first red line in Syria, the phrase wouldn’t be used elsewhere today. Now it is being used everywhere.
By the way, have you noticed that the word “dither” now has become stapled to the word Obama? It’s not just a newspeak cliche. It is becoming a shorthand for an Obama presidency reality. And this too is largely the result another way in which Obama has painted himself into a corner — not through a careless act but through deliberate inaction.
The poster project for this result is the Keystone pipeline. It seems to have been with us as long as the Obama presidency itself. The project would build a pipeline to bring oil-like tar sands bitumen from Canada to Texas. It may well not create as many jobs as its advocates promise, but probably won’t cause as much environmental damage as critics assert. If there is no pipeline, trains and barges will move the tar-sand bitumen — carrying their own potential environmental damage.
But rather than offend either side by approving or rejecting TransCanada firm’s plan to build the pipeline, Obama’s over-study was another form of painting himself into a corner. His studied inaction seems to have conjoined for a political eternity “Obama” and “dither.”
Approve Keystone. Or don’t. But move on.