Also recognizing the longstanding Democratic vulnerability of being labeled "soft on defense," Obama authorized the CIA under his close ally, Leon Panetta, to refocus U.S. counterterrorism efforts on eliminating al-Qaeda's top leadership, most notably Osama bin Laden.
That led to an expanded use of Predator drones hovering in the skies over Pakistan and other countries where al-Qaeda operatives were seen as mounting terrorist attacks against the U.S. mainland. Drone missiles killed U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen as well as other al-Qaeda operatives (though bin Laden was slain by U.S. commandos airlifted deep into Pakistan).
The drones raised a variety of serious concerns, such as the risk of making war seem easy and cheap. U.S. boots could be kept on the ground at home -- with "pilots" handling "joy sticks" thousands of miles from the actual war zones. But this tactic of targeting groups of suspected terrorists did create political space for Obama to finish withdrawing from the war in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan -- despite harsh criticism from neocons and other pundits.
Belatedly, Obama also began replacing his initial Team of Rivals. Gates went into retirement in 2011; Petraeus departed amid a sex scandal in 2012; and Clinton is slated to be gone early in 2013.
So, there are two ways to view Obama's foreign policy: one is that he let himself be hoodwinked by the hawks in his Team of Rivals but is now quietly extricating the United States from a decade of imperial wars, slowing steering the ship of state toward a more peaceful harbor -- or two, he is just the latest manager of American imperialism with plans to reduce military operations in the Middle East only to expand them in Africa and Asia.
A similar duality of opinion persists about Obama's domestic policies. In 2008-09, was he so terrified of tipping the world into a global depression that he swallowed his anger and acquiesced to bailing out Wall Street, or was he simply the latest Wall Street tool to become President with the singular goal of protecting Wall Street's financial interests?
Did he get all that was politically doable on economic stimulus, the auto rescue and health-care reform -- in the face of intractable Republican and right-wing opposition -- or did he throw the fight on behalf of special interests?
If you wish to be generous toward Obama, you might add that just as the inexperienced president was entranced by the Team of Rivals illusion on foreign policy, he stuck way too long with another Inside-the-Beltway fantasy: the notion that he could somehow woo "reasonable" Republicans into putting aside partisanship and help him address a moment of grave economic crisis.
His courtship of Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine was particularly painful as he kept thinking he had a chance with her on health-care reform when she obviously was just stringing him along. Yet, to this day, Obama gets hectored by the likes of the New York Times' Maureen Dowd for not schmoozing enough with Republicans, as if playing poker with them on Wednesday nights would somehow lead them into bipartisan camaraderie the rest of the week.
The mainstream media continues to peddle this myth that bipartisanship is possible if only Obama tried harder, even when all the evidence indicates that the Republicans set out from the start to destroy his presidency and to deny him any achievements regardless of the toll that would take on the U.S. and world economies.
So, the fact that there has been almost no accountability in the Washington pundit class for a long train of failures has to be taken into account when evaluating Obama's first term. If Obama had struck off in a radically different direction on foreign or domestic policies, he would have encountered intense resistance not only from the Republicans, the Tea Party and the neocons but also from the mainstream media and other parts of the Establishment. Whether he could have maintained his political viability in such circumstances is debatable.
Perfection vs. Pragmatism
In that regard, the long-term decline of the American Left also must be factored in. A common refrain that I hear from folks on the Left is that America has no Left, at least nothing that compares to the power on the Right to reach out to millions of sympathizers -- via a sophisticated media apparatus -- and rally them into action.
Instead of having the capacity to mobilize supporters to fight for politically achievable reforms, the Left now even shies away from offering specific policy ideas, as happened with the Occupy protests in 2011. Long-term marginalization from practical politics has contributed to the Left's tendency to adopt the role of critic, acting as the avatar of perfection.
Giving his Second Inaugural Address, President Obama may have been speaking as much to the Left as to the Right when he declared:
"We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall."
Indeed, the answer to the question -- who is the real Barack Obama -- may not present itself until this second term plays out and possibly not even then. Even though his speech on Monday was the most ringing defense of liberal government that the American people have heard in decades, there will still be those on the Left who doubt his sincerity and will surely find evidence of inconsistencies in his compromises.