What will Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy be? Some think that like Jimmy Carter, he has left behind a record of weakness, regret, and humiliation. Others cite the examples of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, neither of whom are remembered as presidential greats, comparing their tepid policies in the wake of World War I when America withdrew from the world to Obama’s reaction to the aftermath of the Iraq War.
But the most illuminating presidential comparison is the one Obama most often makes of himself. He likes Ike.
Dwight Eisenhower and Barack Obama may seem to have little in common other than golf, but their approaches to national security policy – as well as the critiques they endured — are remarkably similar. Both presidents inherited a country battered by unpopular wars they were determined to unwind – Korea for Ike, Iraq for Obama — and made doing so a central part of their presidential campaigns. They were dubious of an excessive faith in military force to solve problems and were wary of the idea that once unleashed, military power could be completely controlled. They were supremely confident in their own abilities, but prized modesty. They often resisted the arguments of more hawkish advisers—and dismissed most foreign policy commentators. They had testy relations with many in the press, who they saw as congenitally disposed to hyperbole and conflict, and openly enjoyed defying Washington wisdom. They focused on returning to a sustainable balance between an ambitious global agenda and domestic resources to support it, worried that if they didn’t better match its means with ends, the country would be on the road to bankruptcy.
When explaining his national security decisions, Obama often cited Eisenhower. In his 2009 speech at West Point announcing his choice to send additional troops to Afghanistan, he invoked Eisenhower’s guidance on the importance of maintaining balance across “all national programs,” a point that critics derided as defeatist. And speaking again at West Point in 2014, Obama drew on this legacy to remind his audience of graduating cadets that “tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans,” and quoting Eisenhower, said “war is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.”
Although both Ike and Obama will be remembered for military restraint, they also expanded the role of modern military tools significantly. Eisenhower presided over a massive build-up of nuclear weapons; Obama innovated the military’s cyber strategy. Eisenhower emphasized covert operations; Obama vastly expanded the use of drones and the size and deployments of special operations forces. And both leaders stressed the importance of building indigenous forces that would be able to provide, as Eisenhower put it, “the maintenance of order, the safeguarding of frontiers, and the provision of the bulk of the ground capability” to fight local conflicts.
When it came to sound strategy, both presidents stressed the importance of maintaining balance (it is a word Eisenhower used many times in his farewell address). The two leaders also extolled the virtue of strategic patience – and bristled at the relative impatience of their respective eras. Obama’s most significant successes – such as the Iran nuclear deal – required patience as they took years to unfold. On other issues – such as the rebalance to Asia, or the defeat of ISIS, or addressing climate change – even more patience is required, as the results may not be perceivable for years. This is reminiscent of Eisenhower, who said that the key to a successful foreign policy was the “element of time” – not only to live for today, but also to be wary of quick fixes. In words Obama would echo over five decades later, Eisenhower warned in his farewell address against the “recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.”
The comparisons with Eisenhower, while largely favorable for Obama, also suggest some less attractive contrasts.
Both embraced a “team of rivals” approach to picking a national security team, priding themselves as comfortable enough in their own skins to have strong, high-profile players around them. However, while Eisenhower empowered the National Security Council system, Obama never seemed to get his process to work as well as it could have.
The sharpest difference between the two leaders is in presidential rhetoric and the expectations it creates. Eisenhower was never accused of being a great orator. He was renowned for his grammatically-challenged circumlocutions and vague statements. And he never really succeeded at framing the era during which he served—after all, Eisenhower’s most remembered address was his final one.
Obama had the opposite problem. He could give a good speech. Yet his conspicuously soaring rhetoric, combined with his determination to engage the battle of ideas and his confidence in doing so, sometimes left a gap between concept and action. As a result, some of Obama’s most heralded speeches and policy initiatives—like his 2009 address in Cairo, or his effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons—fell victim to over-promising and under-delivering. It was an example of immodesty—albeit rhetorical immodesty—that Eisenhower never would have, perhaps could have conceived.
In this sense, because of his oratorical talents and policy ambition, Obama faced a more acute version of the dilemma that Ike shared: a long-term strategy that combines balance, patience and restraint is difficult to sell. It is hard to inspire people when you are stressing what not to do, even if it would avoid trouble. The Ike-Obama approach—powerful yet modest, ambitious yet aware of limits, decisive yet suspicious of impulse—tries to steer a middle path.
Finally, both Eisenhower and Obama had similar departures from the White House. Both were criticized as leaving America weak – the incoming Kennedy team derided Ike’s “soft sentimentalism,” just as Trump promises to restore American strength. Both had to spend their last months in office dealing with crises with Russia (the U-2 shootdown incident for Ike; Russia’s election meddling for Obama), and were blamed for not doing enough to stand up to Moscow. And while both left office as popular two-term presidents, their chosen successors narrowly lost the vote to replace them.
But most important, both leaders left power deeply worried about the state of America’s politics and the future of its democracy.
President Eisenhower famously left office in January 1961 warning of the “unwarranted influence” of the military-industrial complex and its powers to distort policy, calling for “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” to “never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
Fifty-six years later, President Obama leaves office warning of a similar ill – what he described in his farewell address as the “rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste” – which is a kind of media-political-industrial-complex” that exerts an influence over the making of national policy that can be similarly damaging. The answer, Obama said, is never to take democracy for granted and for all to accept the “responsibility of citizenship.” I think Ike would agree.
This essay is adapted from the book The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World (PublicAffairs, 2016).