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Gwen’s Take: The tyranny of heightened expectations

bio-ifill
Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY Gwen Ifill  March 28, 2014 at 10:40 AM EDT
The president, seen here in 2013 speaking to the press about a phone conversation he had with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, has been viewed as weak on foreign policy, while polls show that Americans oppose getting involved with conflicts abroad. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The president, seen here in 2013 speaking to the press about a phone conversation he had with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, has been viewed as weak on foreign policy, while polls show that Americans oppose getting involved with conflicts abroad. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

It is fascinating to watch the cloud of expectation that follows the president around. Obama supporters, somewhat emotionally deflated after five years of reality checks, still appear to expect him to confront dictators (without troops), end deportations (while protecting the border), raise wages (without any negative impact to the economy) and support marriage equality and health care for all (without offending the Pope or costing anybody any money).

The president’s detractors, meanwhile, are convinced he cannot put a foot right. They say his inability to stop Vladimir Putin in Russia and Bashar Assad in Syria (or to get a website up and running) proves he is weak. Columnist George Will asserted this week that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is hanging back in punishing Putin because she “may think that bringing Barack Obama to a confrontation with Putin is like bringing a knife — a butter knife — to a gun fight.”

President Barack Obama meets Pope Francis at his private library in the Apostolic Palace on March 27, 2014 in Vatican City. Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images

President Barack Obama met Pope Francis at his private library in the Apostolic Palace on Thursday in Vatican City. Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images

The trouble with both of these approaches is that they leave no room for complication — especially when it comes to foreign policy matters. The New York Times White House reporter Peter Baker captured the dilemma perfectly, when he wisely pointed out that Putin has bedeviled not one, not two, but three, U.S. presidents.

And who knows what Americans really want and expect? Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution notes that Americans rate Mr. Obama as weak on foreign policy even though his actions match up with the light foreign policy footprint that polls show they want. He calls it “The President’s paradox.”

I was reminded once again how difficult it can be for world leaders to satisfy all comers as I listened to the commentary that surrounded the president’s first meeting with Pope Francis. The first African-American U.S. President and the first Latin American pontiff were all smiles. Some headlines even called the simple handshake and exchange of gifts “historic.” This was typical of the kind of hagiographic coverage both men have received, off and on, since they rose to two of the world’s most powerful positions.

If the pope expresses tolerance for all human beings, gay rights and women’s rights activists perk up. It’s only later that they listen to the subtext and realize that he endorsed neither gay marriage nor the ordination of women as priests.

And if the president talks tough to intransigent world leaders, it quickly becomes clear he has neither the will, the desire, nor the support of the people he leads to back up his words with military force.
This is the dilemma of leadership. It’s usually more complicated than we want it to be. Doctrine must be adhered to. Congressional support is often required.

Better to take a deep breath and remember that, even if it has sometimes seemed that way, nothing worthwhile ever happened only with the stroke of a pen. Pack your patience.