For Better or Worse: Obama Has Changed During His Presidency

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Barack Obama is now a “wartime” president, or so a number of headlines proclaimed in the weeks following his announcement that the United States would significantly escalate airstrikes targeting Islamic militants by bombing ISIL fighters and headquarters in Syria.

In one sense, this transformation is remarkable. Remarkable because “a president who was elected for being the anti-war candidate — Obama has never been more sincere than in his war policy — has now launched his own war,” wrote Paul Bonicelli in a September blog post for the Foreign Policy. “Compare him to Woodrow Wilson: One can see that while Obama was and is truly reluctant to be a war president, Wilson took up the role eagerly as a means to remake the world, according to progressive ideas, even though he had benefited in his reelection with cheers of ‘he kept us out of war.’ Surely the bitterest pill for Obama is to have to be a wartime commander-in-chief when all his adult life, through his election and until today, he has believed that American assertiveness is the problem and that salon diplomacy can make the world a better place and obviate the need for war.”

What Bonicelli is arguing is that unlike the United States’ 28th President Woodrow Wilson — whose presidency spanned the country’s involvement in the first World War — did not ignore the problems facing the global community by pursuing peace at all costs. Rather, when confronted with Germany’s unrestrained aggression, Wilson announced to Congress that, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” At the end of the war, he took the opportunity to pitch his “Fourteen Points,” a plan for postwar peace in Europe and a hope for a new kind of world. He delivered that guide on January 8, 1918, in what became his most famous speech. It exemplified his commitment to the fight for peace, a commitment he backed up with a firm plan.

In Bonicelli’s estimation, Obama’s hopes for peace, by comparison, are misguided. The past six years of Obama’s presidency saw peace in Iraq fall apart and a new breed of terrorists born. To Bonicelli, those events showed Obama that “the world would not behave like he wanted,” and that new perspective pushed “Obama to finally launch his own war.”

Following Obama’s past six addresses to the General Assembly of the United Nations shows a definite progression of the president’s position on the international community, terrorism, and global conflicts — even if the changes in his rhetoric do not definitively support Bonicelli’s thesis that Obama has realized his strategies were not effective.

Thomas Wright, a Brookings Institution Fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy, saw the president’s September speech to the UN a “major turning point.” That address “was his best on foreign policy in his second term and stands in sharp contrast to his disappointing West Point speech in May,” where the president said: “America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world … the odds of direct threat against us by any nation are low.” Indeed, as Wright states, the president’s words did serve to explain his world view and revealed much about “how much things have changed in the past year.”

Although he promised to destroy terrorists in some form or another in each of those six speeches, the tone has notably shifted and there was no sign he had changed the status quo.

These Key Passages Show How Obama’s Ideology Has Changed Since 2009

Obama’s Speech to the United Nations General Assembly, September 23, 2009

Nine months into his presidency, Obama told his audience that he was “humbled by the responsibility that the American people have placed upon me, mindful of the enormous challenges of our moment in history, and determined to act boldly and collectively on behalf of justice and prosperity at home and abroad.” He saw his responsibility to heal “skepticism and distrust” of the American public and recalibrate the status quo. He argued that people the world over were discontented with “a status quo that has allowed us to be increasingly defined by our differences, and outpaced by our problems.” But still, a hope remained that “real change is possible” and that “America will be a leader in bringing about such change.”

Here, the themes were the same of his 2008 campaign: hope and change. His descriptions of global players and the crises of time reflected that sentiment. He spoke of “responsibly ending a war” in Iraq; called Russia a partner in nuclear disarmament efforts; talked about “extremists” not “terrorists;” promised Guantanamo Bay would soon be emptied and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict solved; and highlighted his administration’s prohibition of tortures. Above all else, he emphasized the need to prevent the world from falling deeper into economic crisis.

Obama lauded global unity, noting that the UN was “founded on the belief that the nations of the world could solve their problems together.” He argued the need for cooperation has never been needed more. “It is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 — more than at any point in human history — the interests of nations and peoples are shared,” the president said.

Obama set goals; after all, “we know the future will be forged by deeds and not simply words. Speeches alone will not solve our problems.”’

Obama’s Remarks to the U.N. General Assembly, September 23, 2010

Again, he drew attention to the common problems shared by nations of the assembly, lingering on the fact that the UN was “built from the rubble of war, designed to unite the world in pursuit of peace.” A small portion of his speech was devote to the problems weighing down the global economy. “I have had no greater focus as President than rescuing our economy from potential catastrophe,” he noted, describing the cooperative efforts taken by many nations to reform the global financial system.

But more important than Obama’s view of growing global security was the growing tangibility of peace. “As for our common security, America is waging a more effective fight against al-Qaeda, while winding down the war in Iraq,” Obama said. “In Afghanistan, the United States and our allies are pursuing a strategy to break the Taliban’s momentum and build the capacity of Afghanistan’s government and security forces, so that a transition to Afghan responsibility can begin next July.” Those efforts hinged upon making sure the “world’s most dangerous extremists” were captured, while their access to weapons were limited. His optimism also carried into the possibilities of a non-proliferation agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as the coexistence of Israel and Palestine.

“So even as we have come through a difficult decade, I stand here before you confident in the future — a future where Iraq is governed by neither tyrant nor a foreign power, and Afghanistan is freed from the turmoil of war; a future where the children of Israel and Palestine can build the peace that was not possible for their parents; a world where the promise of development reaches into the prisons of poverty and disease; a future where the cloud of recession gives way to the light of renewal and the dream of opportunity is available to all,” he said.

Remarks by President Obama in Address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 21, 2011

Obama’s optimism grew in 2011. “The tide of war is receding,” he stated in his third address. “When I took office, roughly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of this year, that number will be cut in half, and it will continue to decline. This is critical for the sovereignty of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s also critical to the strength of the United States as we build our nation at home.”

In his estimation, the United States was “poised to end these wars from a position of strength. Ten years ago, there was an open wound and twisted steel, a broken heart in the center of this city. Today, as a new tower is rising at Ground Zero, it symbolizes New York’s renewal, even as al-Qaeda is under more pressure than ever before. Its leadership has been degraded. And Osama bin Laden, a man who murdered thousands of people from dozens of countries, will never endanger the peace of the world again.”

Remarks by President Obama in Address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 25, 2012

But by 2012, the President’s tone had changed considerably; his optimism had dimmed. His speech came just days after the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya killed two Americans. He detailed in depth the life of Chris Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador who died. The tragedy prompted the president to recommit to the country’s responsibility to preserving ideals of global security. “If we are serious about upholding these ideals, it will not be enough to put more guards in front of an embassy or to put out statements of regret and wait for the outrage to pass,” he said. “If we are serious about these ideals, we must speak honestly about the deeper causes of the crisis, because we face a choice between the forces that would drive us apart and the hopes that we hold in common.”

That hope glimmered through at the end of his speech; he lauded the end of the war in Iraq and the return of U.S. troops.

– Remarks by President Obama in Address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 24, 2013

Hope flickered again in 2013. “Together, we’ve also worked to end a decade of war,” Obama said. “As a result of this work, and cooperation with allies and partners, the world is more stable than it was five years ago,” he added with great optimism.

Still, he did acknowledge that the Syrian Civil War was a problem. “Now, the crisis in Syria, and the destabilization of the region, goes to the heart of broader challenges that the international community must now confront,” he said. “How should we respond to conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa — conflicts between countries, but also conflicts within them?  How do we address the choice of standing callously by while children are subjected to nerve gas, or embroiling ourselves in someone else’s civil war?  What is the role of force in resolving disputes that threaten the stability of the region and undermine all basic standards of civilized conduct? What is the role of the United Nations and international law in meeting cries for justice?”

But one year later, the “world stands at a crossroads between war and peace, between disorder and integration,” according to Obama. While in 2013 he saw a world “more stable,” in 2014, Obama perceived “a pervasive unease in our world.” Several sentences later, he warned that the world is now at risk of being “pulled back by an undertow of instability.”

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