An even-tempered President Obama tries to keep a historic week in perspective, while foreign policy challenges remain.
COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
WASHINGTON – Prodded to gloat about his indisputably good run over the last week, President Obama’s instinct on Tuesday was to downplay.
“One of the things I’ve learned in this presidency is that there are going to be ups and there are going to be downs,” Obama said. “I might see if we can make next week even better.”
Since his presidential team first began to gel during his 2008 campaign, friends and advisers have talked about the cool and even temper of the former law professor.
He cautions his team against getting too high or too low, said one longtime adviser, and he follows the maxim himself – even after the perfect storm that converged for the White House last week: The Supreme Court upheld the heart of Obama’s signature health care act and legalized gay marriage nationwide. He signed a package of bipartisan trade bills into law.
And as the nation reeled from a brutal mass homicide in a Black South Carolina church, Obama delivered an address of healing and unity.
Highest in years
A CNN poll found that 50 percent of respondents said they approve of the way Obama is handling the presidency, a height for the last two years. His overall ratings got a boost from improving reviews of his handling of race relations and the economy, the network reported.
But when asked about the run of good fortune Tuesday, Obama answered like a two-term president well aware of how quickly the winds can shift.
“My best week, I will tell you, was marrying Michelle,” he said at a news conference at the White House alongside Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. “That was a really good week. Malia and Sasha being born … excellent weeks. There was a game where I scored 27 points. That was a pretty good week.”
Last week, he said, “was gratifying.”
Subject to change
The president’s agenda could still be disrupted on any number of issues. Obama ticked them off during Tuesday’s news conference.
Tuesday’s deadline on negotiations concerning Iran’s nuclear program was moved back to next week, and Obama noted that there are “deep-seated disagreements and divisions” that could still derail a deal.
The Greek financial crisis is probably not a matter of grave concern to Americans, he said, but it could have a “dampening effect on the entire world economy.”
Though Rousseff brushed over the significance of the National Security Agency eavesdropping on her phone calls, Obama left room for the possibility that the spying scandal could erupt again.
“There’s still going to be differences occasionally, but that’s true with every one of our close friends and allies,” he said.
‘Squeeze every ounce’
After all the caveats, though, came a reminder that Obama still occasionally feels the urge to brag.
“In many ways, last week was simply a culmination of a lot of work that we’ve been doing since I came into office,” Obama said. His instructions to his team are to “squeeze every last ounce of progress” out of his remaining time in the Oval Office.
He’s pushed forward overtime pay for more Americans and is pushing a deal to improve roads and bridges, he said. He’ll work on bipartisan legislation to reform the criminal justice system and fight for free community college.
“Are we going to make this a more inclusive economy, a more inclusive society, a more fair, just society?” he asked. “If that’s our North Star and we keep on tacking in that direction, we’re going to make progress.”
However, Obama’s foreign policy record is unsettled and may not be fully established until years after he leaves office. Here’s a look at offshore challenges:
After taking office in 2009, Obama oversaw a major buildup of U.S. troops and civilians aimed at curtailing a resurgence by the Taliban. He expanded training of Afghan security forces and bolstered efforts to improve governance. But he also said he would begin withdrawing U.S. combat forces at the end of 2011.
In June 2013, the Afghan government assumed full responsibility for the country’s security, and the U.S. combat mission ended in October 2014, leaving military trainers and advisers and U.S. Special Forces dedicated to fighting al-Qaida.
The Taliban, however, have pressed their insurgency, overrunning areas once secured by U.S. forces.
This year, Obama slowed the withdrawal of U.S. military trainers and advisers, and Special Forces, haunted by the experience of Iraq, where U.S. troops returned last year after the virtual collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of Islamic State.
The situation lately has turned urgent, with Taliban attacks intensifying in northern Afghanistan. It’s unlikely that Afghan forces will have prevailed by the time the U.S. withdrawal is completed in December 2016. But with Obama leaving office the following month, dealing with Afghanistan will pass to his successor.
It’s almost certain that Obama also will bequeath the crisis in Iraq to the winner of the November 2016 presidential election.
Fulfilling an election promise and an agreement negotiated by President George W. Bush, Obama oversaw the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq in December 2011. The more than 3,500 troops who have returned since last year’s Islamic State onslaught are trainers and advisers, sent to help rebuild and bolster the moribund Iraqi army.
The U.S. strategy, however, has been badly hampered by the Shiite-led government’s failure to recruit significant numbers of minority Sunnis to help fight the Islamic State alongside Iran-backed Shiite militias.
After Islamic State captured Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, in May, Obama indirectly acknowledged that his strategy wasn’t working when he approved the deployment of 450 additional U.S. military trainers and advisers and accelerated the delivery of arms and hardware to Baghdad.
Administration officials haven’t ruled out the possibility of sending more U.S. troops, including some who might be placed with Iraqi combat units.
Obama’s efforts to keep the U.S. out of the Syria conflict have been fitful. An initial push to bolster Syrian exiles as the face of the opposition foundered on the exiles’ internal bickering. Arming opponents to Syrian President Bashar Assad foundered as al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, and other Islamist groups came to dominate the movement.
The need to counter Islamic State in Syria was made more immediate last summer by the murders of three Americans held by the extremists. But the effect of the U.S. bombing campaign there remains uncertain.
U.S. bombing helped thwart Islamic State’s push on Kobani, but the subsequent cooperation between the U.S. Defense Department and Kurdish defenders of Kobani, the People’s Protection Units has angered NATO-ally Turkey, which views the them as a terrorist group.
The conflict in Syria clearly will outlast the Obama administration.
Obama – who initiated a “reset” in relations with Russia when he took office – now is embroiled in a standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the 2014 seizure of Crimea, and Moscow’s support for separatists who control self-declared pro-Moscow republics in eastern Ukraine.
Obama’s approach to Russia had some successes. The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty further reduced the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. The countries cooperated in the negotiations with Iran and the delivery of supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But the United States now has to reassure NATO allies worried about Putin’s intentions by staging joint military exercises, and by positioning in Eastern Europe enough weapons and armor to equip a combat brigade. The United States and the European Union also have imposed several rounds of economic sanctions on Moscow.
Still, Putin called Obama on Thursday for the first time in four months. Obama focused on Ukraine, telling Putin that Russia needs to live to up to the terms of a ceasefire deal that included “the removal of all Russian troops and equipment from Ukrainian territory,” the White House said.
Obama was viewed warily from the start by the Israeli government and its U.S. supporters, partly because of a early opposition to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank.
Israelis also were dismayed that Obama traveled to Egypt but not to Israel in his first term. He sought to make up for lost ground on his first trip to Israel as president in 2013, backing an aggressive push by Secretary of State John Kerry to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and pledging to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
Kerry’s diplomatic effort collapsed a year later.
Obama and Netanyahu’s relationship – never friendly – plunged when Netanyahu accepted House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint session of Congress in which the Israeli leader denounced the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran.
On his second day in office, Obama signed an executive order to close the prison for suspected terrorists at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The administration, however, encountered vociferous opposition from Congress, which has passed legislation blocking the closing and the transfer of detainees to the continental United States.
Supporters of closing the prison partly blame Obama for the center’s continued operation, charging that he has never made closing it a priority even while contending that it is a recruitment tool for extremists.
Obama upended 50 years of U.S. foreign policy in December by agreeing to restore diplomatic relations with communist-ruled Cuba and authorizing an expansion of travel and trade with the island.
“I don’t expect a transformation of Cuban society overnight, but I’m convinced with engagement we can more effectively stand up for our values,” Obama said.
Just this week, the two countries announced a plan to open embassies in each other’s capital.
Jonathan S. Landay, Lesley Clark, Christi Parsons and Michael A. Memoli of the McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS) all contributed to this report.