Fareed Zakaria at PostGlobal

Fareed Zakaria

Editor of Newsweek International, columnist

PostGlobal co-moderator Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International, overseeing all Newsweek's editions abroad. He writes a regular column for Newsweek, which also appears in Newsweek International and often The Washington Post. He is a member of the roundtable of ABC News' "This Week with George Stephanapoulos" as well as an analyst for ABC News. And he is the host of a new weekly PBS show, "Foreign Exchange" which focuses on international affairs. His most recent book, "The Future of Freedom," was published in the spring of 2003 and was a New York Times bestseller and is being translated into eighteen languages. He is also the author of "From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America's World Role" (Princeton University Press), and co-editor of "The American Encounter: The United States and the Making of the Modern World" (Basic Books). Close.

Fareed Zakaria

Editor of Newsweek International, columnist

PostGlobal co-moderator Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International, overseeing all Newsweek's editions abroad. He writes a regular column for Newsweek, which also appears in Newsweek International and often The Washington Post. more »

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The Secret of Obama's Success

No American president in modern memory has faced a learning curve as steep as the one Barack Obama has encountered. When Obama began his quest for the Democratic nomination three years ago, the Dow Jones industrial average was 14,000 and the world was in the midst of a great economic boom. By the time he took office, America's financial industry was in chaos, credit markets were frozen, housing values were plummeting and the economy was undergoing its worst contraction since the Great Depression. Add to that Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and you get an extraordinary set of challenges.

Yet by most measures, President Obama's first 100 days have been successful. The economy remains weak, of course, but he has put forward a series of initiatives to stabilize the capital and housing markets, proposed longer-term programs to create sustained growth, adjusted America's military priorities in Afghanistan and Iraq, and begun a process of reaching out to the world and changing America's image.

Many commentators have focused on his calm leadership style, his deliberative methods and his tight teamwork. That's all true, but there is a larger explanation for the success so far. Obama has read the country and the political moment correctly. He understands where America is in 2009 and that, as polls show, it is a more liberal country than it was two decades ago.

Conservative commentators have made much of a recent Pew survey showing that public reaction to Obama has been more polarized than to any other president in the past four decades: Democrats really like him, and Republicans really dislike him. But the poll's most striking statistic was how few Americans self-identify as Republicans. For the past year that rate has hovered around 24 percent, the lowest in three decades. It's not so much that the Republican base has shrunk, as Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz points out in a recent essay: the Democratic base has expanded. When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, the Democratic base was 30 percent of the electorate; swing voters made up 43 percent and Republicans 27 percent. Last year, Democrats made up 41 percent, swing voters dropped to 32 percent and Republicans 27 percent.

Because party loyalties tend not to shift quickly, an 11-point rise for the Democrats is astonishing. Abramowitz argues that since these changes are largely rooted in demography--particularly the growing nonwhite population--they are likely to persist for a while.
Obama has also figured out how to utilize the moment. Rahm Emmanuel's aphorism -- never let a crisis go to waste -- has proved a brilliant political strategy. By combining short-term stimulus spending with long-term progressive projects, Obama has confounded the opposition. Senator Judd Gregg was on CNBC last week trying to explain that while he fully supported government spending for 2009 and 2010 to jump-start the economy, his concerns were about 2011 and 2012. That's a complicated case to make to the electorate.

Just as important, though, is that Obama has not overinterpreted the moment. He has steered a careful middle course on the bank bailouts. The most spirited critiques of his policies have come not from the right but from the left--in the clamor for nationalization. He may or may not have the policy right, but he certainly has the politics right. The country remains generally suspicious of big government and comfortable with free markets and private enterprise. The old Democratic hostility to big business doesn't resonate so strongly anymore, since the new Democratic coalition includes fewer working-class whites and more college graduates. Obama has handled the public's anger well, giving voice to outrage but not enacting populist policies. He quietly announced last week that he will not reopen negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement to impose new labor and environmental standards.

On the torture memos, Obama has made clear (after some hesitation) that he does not want to criminalize a policy disagreement. On Iraq, he has hewed to a centrist course, but still one that draws down America's military presence. On Cuba, Iran and Syria, his overtures have been modest and preliminary. In almost every arena, he has pushed the envelope to change policy, not worrying about the inevitable opposition from the right, yet always in a sober and calculating manner.

Globalization, immigration, more working women and college graduates--all these have changed America over the past two decades. In a detailed study for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin point out that 67 percent of Americans now view the term "progressive" favorably, a 25-point increase in five years. This doesn't make us a European country -- 67 percent also think favorably of the term "conservative" -- but it does suggest that things are changing. Obama's success derives from his understanding of this shift -- and his readiness to act on it.

Comments (7)

manishyt Author Profile Page:

Barack Obama’s Excellent Adventure

In assessing President Obama’s 100 day performance on the world stage, we measure his progress in addressing America’s three critical geosecurity priorities: reducing the threat of jihadi terrorism, while also reducing further alienation of the world’s Muslim population; finding a workable relationship with China, which is increasingly both an economic partner and a strategic rival globally; and preventing a potential long term decline in the US economy caused by years of profligate economic policies and the “time bomb” of Medicare/Social Security expenditures which are nearly upon us.

So how has the President done?

All in all President Obama has had an extremely active 100 days. We suspect that globally the President is more popular as a person than the US is as a country right now. He is wisely using that to reintroduce America to the world, and even if nothing else has been achieved, the atmospherics are far improved. Closing Guantanamo, coming clean on torture (no matter how painful), and using his own personal popularity (and that of the Clintons) have all helped to restore some of America’s moral authority and popularity. On substantive matters, there is a huge amount yet to be done: a viable strategy in Pakistan that stabilizes it, removing it as a threat to both us and to US operations in Afghanistan; discussing new security structures with the Europeans; tough talk with the Chinese on the trade deficit (and other issues such as North Korea); and articulating a plan to address the country’s long term finances. But if measured in terms of “repackaging” America to a skeptical world audience, which was always going to be the first task for any new American leader, the President and Michelle Obama can look back to a successful first 100 days.

Citizenofthepost-Americanworld Author Profile Page:

Aprogressiveindependent writes: "I think more accurately the United States is less conservative, not more liberal than two decades ago... Obama looks superior, despite these flaws as a typical politician, though compared to the anemic, reactionary Republican opposition."

I could not agree more.

Obama was elected President primarily because he was considered preferable to an insufferable predecessor, and in the hope that his administration would advantageously replace what the world had come to despise as an insufferable regime.

As yet, all the last presidential elections have made abundantly clear is that this country remains divided right down the middle… to the right of the ideological spectrum, with the extreme right on the right, the right on its left, and with too little left of the left for such debris to occupy any significant space on the political or ideological spectrum at this point. In that context, that "the most spirited critiques of his (Obama’s) policies have come not from the right but from the left" (so-called) is no sign of a national move toward liberalism, least of all that Obama is on "a centrist course", contrary to what so many American commentators of the right have been and remain so eager to have us believe. It may rather be an indication that so far, Obama may not be as far from the extreme right as some seem to suggest.

In any case, it is much too early, it seems to me, to tell whether this country has become more liberal, or just how liberal or progressive President Obama will prove to have been, as President. Yet so far, the signs are far from encouraging. After all, whose interests are being served by Obama’s initiatives? Do American citizens even know where those trillions in public money have gone? Do our citizens know in whose pockets those trillions have disappeared? Do citizens know how many additional trillions of public money will be needed and whose interests they will serve? More importantly, do citizens know when they will recover their money, if ever? Again, whose interests are being served here? That is the one and only question responsible citizens need constantly ask about Obama’s team.

Still, to this day, Obama’s greatest weakness in his flight “forward” remains to so stubbornly refuse to look behind him and to hold both responsible and accountable those who are known to have, in the past, displayed repeatedly an unacceptable, shameful, often criminal conduct, be it economic, military or political. The risk, for Obama, is that such a conduct may repeat itself and come to haunt him and his administration in the not too distant future.

A so-called “national unity” based on generalized impunity for inadmissible conduct is a sham. It is not worth Obama struggling so hard to preserve it. Principled government demands more courageous action from a genuine world leader. Ultimately, that may prove to be the missing key to Obama’s credibility, success and re-election.

clearthinking1 Author Profile Page:

Dear Mr. Zakaria,

On March 1 2009 you wrote:
"The Pakistani government is hoping that this agreement will isolate the jihadists and win the public back to its side. This may not work, but at least it represents an effort to divide the camps of the Islamists between THOSE WHO ARE VIOLENT AND THOSE WHO ARE MERELY EXTREME.
Over the past eight years, such distinctions have tended to be regarded as naive. "We won the war in Iraq chiefly because we separated the local militants from the global jihadists," says Fawaz Gerges, a scholar at Sarah Lawrence College, who has interviewed hundreds of Muslim militants. "Yet around the world we are still unwilling to make the DISTINCTION BETWEEN THESE TWO GROUPS." Anything that emphasizes the variety of groups, movements and motives within that world strengthens the case that THIS IS NOT A BATTLE BETWEEN ISLAM AND THE WEST." {Capitals added}

I criticized your analysis then as being disingenuous. I have respected your status as a premier foreign policy analyst in America for years, but now we must all question your objectivity and credentials. You have presented yourself as a secular Indian from Mumbai without a specific allegiance to Islam. However, your recent articles seem to betray at least a subconcsious attempt to deflect blame directed at Islam for violence and terrorism. This desire to deflect blame directed at Islam seems to be significantly limiting your ability to objectively analyse the challenges facing America and the world from Islamic terrorism.
I find it hard to accept that someone with your knowledge about Pakistan, Islam, and terrorism honestly believed that a distinction can be made between "those who are violent and those who are merely extreme."

I hope you write a follow up column about the Swat Valley deal and Islamic ideology. The distinction you made between violent Muslims and merely extreme muslims was false - as shown by the public whipping of teenage girls, invitation for refuge for Osama Bin Ladin, expansion into Buner, and other "nonlocal" global jihadist behavior. It was obvious to the rest of us then and should be obvious to you now. This time try to be objective as an AMERICAN of INDIAN descent and leave emotional loyalties to your Muslim identity behind, especially after 9/11, Mumbai, London, and all the other terrorist acts over decades that you are very familiar with.

Aprogressiveindependent Author Profile Page:

I think more accurately the United States is less conservative, not more liberal than two decades ago.
Those esposing a rigid right wing ideology control the Republican party more strongly than when the first Bush became president.

Obama's victory was hardly inevitable. Had the stock market not substantially declined during the fall and McCain chosen a moderate for vice-president or at least a qualified moderate conservative, the election would have been much closer. These two factors have little, if anything, to do with the country becoming arguably more liberal.

Obama promised change people could believe in, yet he has been discarding, rightly or wrongly, some of his campaign promises. His apparent refusal to investigate, prosecute wrongdoing by officials during the Bush-Cheney regime contradicts his supposed respect for the rule of law. Obama, as Zakaria points out, has nullified his campaign rhetoric about revising NAFTA. He seems likely to sign a health care "reform" bill, having as its foundation, a mandate to purchase health care insurance, which he criticized Senator Clinton for espousing and was one of their only significant policy differences. Obama seems increasingly as a typical politician, with some of his important actions nullifying his campaign rhetoric.

Obama looks superior, despite these flaws as a typical politician, though compared to the anemic, reactionary Republican opposition.

Moonraker Author Profile Page:

Excellent piece, Mr. Zakaria. One wonders, however, how similar Obama is to Bill Clinton who obsessed about the polls in the 1990s. It won him the presidency twice, but was he sincere in tailoring his policies to public opinion? Obama seems not only to be in tune with a change of American political sensibilities, but also sincere in his personal views, which is encouraging.

However important ideals are, what happens at the negotiating table is another thing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brings her own baggage to the administration. Can the two of them steer the same course in foreign policy or will she try tack her own agenda? So far we have heard promising words and gestures, but the US government is yet to begin hammering out specific policies with its former enemies, not to mention allies. The results of the negotiations with Russia, Iran, and North Korea, among others, will become the proof of how well the current administration can balance good intentions and wise policies.

DebChatterjee Author Profile Page:


You forgot to mention that Muslim world is gaga over Obama, because of: (a) his bowing to King Abdullah, and, (b) his middle name "Hussein". The Al-Qaeda and Talibans are smiling ... They know what to do when they apprehend (white) Americans ... They know that the end will not be that bad as under Bush the Crusader. This liberal president has all the honesty of prosecuting the defenders (CIA interrogators) of USA, than, the persecuters (Al-Qaeda terrorists). Yes, change we need to believe in ...

thetrajectory1 Author Profile Page:

President Obama is challenging the traditional tags for casting friends, enemies, competitors and facilitators. President Obama's foreign policy approach is putting Lord Palmerstone's contentions 'we have no permanent friends, we have no permanent friends, we have only permanent interests'.
The U.S. has traditionally viewed China as an emerging economic competitor; Cuba’s links with erstwhile Communist Russia still dominate the official U.S. psyche; the Iranian hostage crisis continues to be a defining feature of U.S. – Iranian relations; Pakistan’s poor record on democracy and nuclear proliferation has been continually off-set by the its critical geo-strategic position; Latin America has been the conventional backyard of hemispheric influence and European allies are considered customary ‘yes-men’. The Obama Administration has overlooked these categorizations and sought to implement a refurbished and updated version of American diplomacy.

PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and washingtonpost.com, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send us your comments, questions and suggestions.