On Sunday, Ariana Huffington and I shared a platform about transformative presidencies at a Truman Library forum in Kansas City. She drew an interesting contrast between the audacity of Obama's campaign and the caution of his domestic policy. Certainly, Obama's conciliatory approach has been notable. He has not followed FDR in throwing down the gauntlet before his domestic opponents by "welcoming their enmity." Whatever the effects on domestic policy -- and as usually, Arianna has a point -- I replied that his conciliatory approach has been a good approach on foreign policy.
Look what he inherited -- a global economic crisis, two difficult wars, erosion of the non-proliferation regime by North Korea and Iran, deterioration of the Middle East peace process, and the rising strength of China just for starters. Obama's dilemma was how to manage this sad inheritance while creating his own vision of how Americans should deal with the world.
He did that with his theme of "a new era of engagement with the world." Through a series of symbolic gestures and speeches (Prague, Cairo, Accra, the United Nations and others), Obama worked wonders in restoring American soft or attractive power in his first year of office. As a recent Pew poll reported, "in many countries opinions of the United States are now as positive as they were at the beginning of the decade before George W. Bush took office."
Skeptics regard soft power as over-rated, but it is a mistake to discount the role that transformative leaders can play in changing the context of difficult issues. Power involves setting agendas and creating others' preferences as well as pushing and shoving. Soft power alone rarely solves hard problems. That is why the administration speaks of "smart power" that successfully combines hard and soft power resources in different contexts. But soft power can create an enabling rather than a disabling environment for policy. Diplomats report that Obama's success in brokering agreements at NATO and G-20 summits was assisted by his popularity.
When Obama came into office, his economic advisers told him there was one chance in three that we were on the brink of another depression. We have successfully avoided that, and Obama was able to help organize a surprising degree of international cooperation on economic issues. Unlike FDR, who torpedoed an international economic conference in 1933, and failed to halt the spread of "beggar they neighbor" policies that made the depression worse, Obama's soft power helped to promote international cooperation when it was vital. And there was a certain audacity of hope in that pursuit.