The great American President. Who is he? What’s he like? We all have this vision in our mind. For me, it’s the fictitious President Josiah Bartlet, the brainchild of Aaron Sorkin on the hit show, ‘The West Wing’. President Bartlet was strong, decisive, brilliant, kind, and even funny. He’s my perfect president. But what does that really mean? The office of the presidency carries significant weight both domestically and internationally and subsequently leads many people to (perhaps naively) have expectations of grandeur or perfection. President Obama seemed to be that man for many. President Obama was an inexperienced, energetic, minority candidate who served as a beacon of hope and optimism for America’s future. Change we could believe in. This article will take a look at what President Obama promised for America’s foreign policy versus what has actually been done. This article also hopes to explore the culture of the presidency of the United States.

Image credit of Kathleen Rhem, © 2013. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Kathleen Rhem, © 2013. Some rights reserved.

President Obama served as a beacon of hope and optimism for America and the world after eight years of George W. Bush leadership, especially after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. In 2009, President Obama had an international approval rating of nearly 80% in both Europe and Japan. After his reelection in 2012, the President’s international approval ratings dropped significantly. In Europe, he sustained a 15-point drop, leaving him at 63%. In Japan, his rating dropped more significantly, leaving him at a 58%. These statistics reflect approval of President Obama’s international policies. So what happened? President Obama made substantial promises concerning America’s foreign policy during both of his campaigns. The most significant of those promises included: ending the war in Iraq, creating an international tax haven watch list, providing $30 billion in aid to Israel over 10 years, sending additional brigades to Afghanistan and, most importantly, closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Everything on the above list, bar the closing of Guantanamo Bay, was either settled by compromise or was successfully completed or initiated.

Established in January of 2002, Guantanamo Bay was due to serve as a place to detain dangerous prisoners, interrogate prisoners in an “optimal” setting, and prosecute said prisoners for war crimes. To be sure, it was an “optimal” location for prisoner interrogation because it could technically be considered outside of the jurisdiction of the United States, which allowed for significant discrepancies in treatment of prisoners there versus US soil. In his first term as President of the United States, President Obama took several strides to ensure the closing of Guantanamo Bay. For instance, the president issued a memorandum in December of 2009 calling for the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois to be prepared to accept transfer prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. The closure faced a challenged in 2011 when President Obama signed the Defense Authorization Bill, which is credited with placing restrictions on the relocation on Guantanamo prisoners. The closure of Guantanamo Bay was a major campaign promise during both elections. As of last month, President Obama had successfully transferred 67 detainees, but 164 detainees remain.

We all have our perfect president. The leader of the free world. The strong, decisive, brilliant, kind, and even funny president. Our very own Jeb Bartlet. But the question ultimately is: can we fault a man for not meeting our expectations? Just because President Obama isn’t the president we expected him to be doesn’t mean he hasn’t been a suitable president. In many ways in fact, he has become our national security president. He was a beacon of hope and optimism. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. But we cannot fault him for not living up to the naïve expectations we harboured. Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc. Translation: after this, therefore because of this. The circumstances upon entering the office of the presidency denied President Obama the chance to be the change we believed in. He became our national security president due to the political climate presented when he assumed his role. I would conclude that the president did not fail when it came to the closure of Guantanamo Bay, but he certainly did not succeed. He played the hand he was dealt. Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc. It is evident now that any attempt to close Guantanamo would have been stemmed by Republican members of Congress and other mitigating factors, like the Wikileaks scandal, and the need for greater secrecy in on sensitive national security issues.

I would argue that President Obama did not let us down. The American public does this every four years. We idealise a candidate to a point of ridiculousness and then express magnificent disappointment when he does not meet our expectations. Perhaps it’s a neoconservative impulse to pit one candidate against the other with superficial labels. If we ever really want a real impetus for change, we will have to look beyond the narrow framework within which we have gotten very comfortable in American politics. In the words of President Jeb Bartlet, “the devil you know beats the devil you don’t, and I like the devil I’ve got.”[1]


[1] The West Wing. “Take This Sabbath Day,” Season 1, Episode 14.

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