For those who have not yet read Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek piece on Obama, published this past week, take note: it should be required reading for all U.S. voters as the country continues its journey toward the 2012 presidential election. Self-identified as a conservative-minded independent, Sullivan takes on the liberal, conservative, and moderate critiques of Obama’s term in office with dexterity — slashing some of the most pervasive arguments from both parties and all sides as fallacious, overblown, and often even factually or internally inconsistent — and maintains that the President’s character, record, and promise remain “grossly underappreciated.” But his main point is this: Obama has been pragmatic from the start, never focused on making short-term gains for which he can immediately and loudly take credit, but instead taking a long view strategy that entails slow, deliberate, unprovocative persistence and makes the changes he achieves more durable.
The point of Sullivan’s piece is not to deify Barack Obama. It is to ground an assessment of the President’s work in reality, which he does quite well. And it can remind Cuba watchers (myself included) of the character and nature of the man we’re considering when we discuss Cuba policy and Executive capabilities and actions.
First, it can help us to remember and recognize the sheer number of challenges the President faced when he took office. The economy was swirling lower into recession, with employment tumbling and our financial system threatening to pull the country into a true depression without swift and decisive action by the Executive and Congress. The U.S. global image was tarnished by our record on torture and by our bloated military presence and arrogant rhetoric. Yet still, not long into his time in office and even as he focused largely on addressing these and other pressing issues, President Obama fulfilled the only concrete campaign promise he made with respect to Cuba policy: he granted Americans unrestricted rights to send money to and visit family in Cuba. Even this small step was met with criticism, and attempts have been made in Congress to roll this policy back. But Obama has held his ground — quietly but firmly — threatening executive veto in order to make sure that his policy remains.
Second, we can recall the number of actors involved in affecting policy, which include, of course, not only the President and his administration but also the legislative branch and nongovernmental actors like lobbying groups, Cuban-American constituencies, think tanks, and others. The Executive seldom acts alone to change policy except, as we have seen, in situations deemed (correctly or not) particularly urgent and crucial to national security. Whatever the merits of changing U.S. policy toward Cuba, it simply does not fall into this category. And he does not yet have Congressional consensus on Cuba.
Third, we are reminded that Obama was not elected as a liberal crusader, but as a pragmatic, unifying reformist. Cuba policy may be ripe for change, but should the President unilaterally decree a set of changes called for by Cuba watchers, think tanks and other nongovernmental actors, he would have to willfully ignore a Congress that has been determined to avoid such changes. This is not his style. Ultimately, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” came from the President working with top military and defense leaders, and they (including Admiral Mike Mullen) came forward and made the case for doing away with the policy. Had Obama acted unilaterally, the repeal would no doubt have taken more heat than it did, would have met with more resistance, and might not have been durable in the long run. We can expect to see the same with further change to U.S. policy toward Cuba, or any changes put in place will be at risk of immediate opposition, counter-attack, and retaliation or repeal. Remember: pragmatic, unifying reformist, not crusader.
And finally, we are reminded that for Washington, Cuba has always been a long game. The basic tenets of our current policy toward the island have been around for half a century without yielding any measurable “success”. Any movement in broad perception, understanding and opinions has been glacial, but we are, however slowly, moving as a population toward a different consensus than that under which current policy was designed. And as more Americans learn about and visit Cuba under the current people-to-people travel regulations, the consensus can be expected to grow.
All of this does not have to make us more patient about seeing additional changes in long-standing U.S. policy toward Cuba. But it could help us see the long view. And perhaps the President is on track.