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America's Challenges 2011

The Gulf oil spill has dominated the headlines for months, but President Obama still has plenty of other issues, from unemployment to Afghanistan, to deal with in the year ahead

By David E. Sanger in Washington, D.C.

When that giant oil gusher erupted in the Gulf of Mexico in April, it did more than foul the waters and threaten the lives of endangered pelicans: It also threw a wrench into the agenda of America's still-new President, forcing the White House to deal with a crisis no one could have anticipated.

The Gulf crisis soaked up time and public attention that President Obama had hoped to use to confront other urgent challenges as the November midterm elections approach: finding ways to jump-start the creation of jobs and keep the economy from slipping back toward recession; responding to nuclear-weapons threats from Iran and North Korea; reassessing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan; and what may be the most critical long-term issue in the President's in-box, dealing with a rising China.

Can't Presidents do more than one thing at a time? Of course: Every President spends his days juggling many issues, both domestic and foreign. But when a disaster like the Gulf oil spill strikes, the public and the media tend to focus on that single issue. And fairly or unfairly, the President gets judged by how quickly he responds, whether he seems to be in command, and the confidence his leadership instills—even if, as Obama said after the oil spill, "I can't suck it up with a straw."

If he appears to come up short, it can change the entire "narrative" of a presidency—a story-line that can, over time, come to color everything else that a President has to deal with.

"I think we coped with the disaster quickly and decisively," said David Axelrod, the President's top political adviser, as the spill was at its height. "But I'm not so sure we communicated what we were doing so well.''

He could have been talking about the whole Obama presidency, which after a year and a half can boast some significant accomplishments—including passage of a major health-care reform law and preventing the Great Recession from turning into a Great Depression—but has nevertheless left the country deeply uneasy about what lies ahead.

Staying Out of Textbooks

No one thought this would be an easy presidency, regardless of who succeeded George W. Bush in 2009. President Obama arguably came into office with a bigger set of problems than any President since Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oath in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. And by most accounts, Obama's actions kept one of the most severe recessions in history from becoming something much worse.

Obama's chief economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, says Obama's goal has been to "keep this economic crisis from ever being taught in high school economics classes"—that is, to keep it insignificant enough that, in contrast to the Depression, it wouldn't even rate a mention in textbooks.

By the Summers test, Obama has succeeded. But the judgment of history can often be different from the judgment of voters. The unemployment rate has steadily hovered just below 10 percent—not nearly as high as the 25 percent during the Depression, but high enough to make many Americans fear that, if they were laid off, they would have a very difficult time finding another job.

And while the economy showed uneven signs of picking up over the summer—retail sales and the stock market are back up from the worst days, and people are starting to buy houses again—the unemployment rate is often top of mind for voters and may spell trouble in the November elections, as Obama and the Democrats fight to retain control of both houses of Congress.

That's why Obama has been urging Congress to continue to fund temporary job-creation bills—hiring people to build roads or extend high-speed Internet service into rural areas, for example. But with the nation's debt ballooning to a record $12 trillion, even some Democrats in Congress are balking at spending more to create jobs. Republicans are also likely to be walking a fine line as November approaches—saying that government has gotten too big under Obama, while not wanting to appear insensitive to those who have lost their jobs.

Nuclear Threats

At the same time, there are significant foreign challenges the U.S. must deal with. When Obama became President, he argued that "engagement'' with America's adversaries might bring them around, after years in which President Bush refused to talk directly to regimes he viewed as hostile. But in the first two big tests of engagement, Iran and North Korea, Obama's offers to talk have not resulted in any useful responses.

Iran continues to produce nuclear fuel and refuses to answer many questions about its suspected programs to build a nuclear weapon. (In late 2009, Obama revealed that Iran had been secretly building a plant—buried underground, near a military base—that was intended to produce more nuclear fuel.)

In June, the United Nations Security Council passed a new, tougher set of sanctions against Iran. But this is the fourth round of sanctions, and so far they've failed to derail Iran's nuclear plans. Obama's critics ask why this time will be different—and what the President plans to do to enforce his promise that Iran would never be allowed to possess nuclear weapons.

"I don't see a set of sanctions coming along that would be so detrimental to the Iranians that they are going to stop that program," says former Secretary of State Colin Powell. "So, ultimately, the solution has to be a negotiated one."

But for that to happen, the Iranians have to be willing to talk—and with Iran's Islamic regime under pressure at home from students and others protesting repression and economic stagnation, that seems unlikely. "Engagement" has also been met with silence in North Korea. The country conducted a nuclear test soon after Obama took office, and despite sanctions, it hasn't changed course.

In March, the North Koreans torpedoed a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. (The North denies responsibility, but the evidence appears strong.) Many believe the attack was an effort to solidify the credentials of the son of Kim Jong Il, the country's ailing leader, as its next dictator. (The son, Kim Jong Un, hasn't officially been named the successor, but many believe he's been brought into his father's inner circle and is being groomed to take over.) And like the Iranians, the North Koreans don't want to talk.

America's relationships with two critical nations, Russia and China, are also high on the President's agenda. In fact, Obama has relied on Russia and China to exert their influence on Iran and North Korea, and they both voted with the U.S. in favor of sanctions. In April, Russia and the U.S. signed a new arms-control agreement, further limiting the number of nuclear weapons both nations can maintain.

But in both Moscow and Beijing, leaders are asking whether the U.S. is overstretched around the world, and what advantages that might give them.

China is probably the most difficult relationship President Obama must handle. According to some estimates, China could overtake the U.S. and become the world's largest economy within the next few decades. And many Americans believe, rightly or wrongly, that jobs moving to China is one of the reasons for the high U.S. unemployment rate.

To guarantee supplies of oil and scarce minerals to fuel its ongoing economic boom, China has begun investing heavily in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere in Asia—part of its challenge to the U.S. as the world's sole superpower. President Obama has said that Americans cannot—and should not—try to contain China. But that means sharing power with it, never an easy concept for Americans to live with.

Even relations with longtime allies like Israel have been problematic. The Obama administration has been trying to restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which many see as key to resolving broader instability in the Middle East. Israel has angered the U.S. by continuing to build in disputed areas that may end up as part of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

In addition, Israel has made clear that it sees Iran's nuclear program as a threat to its existence. With Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad having said he wants to "wipe Israel off the map," Israel has hinted that if the U.S. does not stop the Iranians from getting a nuclear weapon, it may be forced to take military action. That could trigger a broader conflict in the Middle East.

"We think we have some time," a top national security aide says. "But if the Israelis really do strike, it will make the other crises we face look comparatively minor.''

Is Afghanistan Winnable?

And then there is Afghanistan, the war that sometimes seems like it will never end. By early summer, the U.S. already had more troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq, where President Obama is making good on his promise to withdraw American forces after seven years and more than 4,400 U.S. deaths.

Soon, roughly 100,000 U.S. troops will be in Afghanistan. The goal the President has laid out is to build a stable country that can defend itself against the Taliban—the radical Islamic group that controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and allowed Al Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks, to train there. But most in the military doubt that can be accomplished by next summer, when Obama says he wants to begin to withdraw troops.

"I think the odds of that being realized are extremely small," says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Withdrawing troops by 2011, he says, will likely require negotiating a deal with the very forces America has been fighting: the Taliban.

Despite these obstacles, the Obama presidency is looking, in historical terms, better than you might think if you listen to pundits on cable TV. In fact, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution says he's actually accomplished more so far than other well-regarded Presidents.

"But the mood is fouler because we've gone through the most substantial economic crisis since the 1930s," Mann says. "Given the seriousness of the economic problems and the other problems he's had to face, Obama's not in bad shape."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, September 6, 2010)