When Air Force One landed in China last week for the G-20 Summit, Chinese authorities didn't wheel out the usual staircase for the president to disembark. Instead he had to exit through an opening in the back of the enormous aircraft. It was, you might say, a pivot to Asia.
That wasn't the last insult Barack Obama absorbed in Hangzhou. The president of the Philippines, long considered a U.S. ally, called him a name family publications usually don't print. It's rare for an American president to be treated with such contempt. It's what happens when you draw red lines and do nothing when people step over them.
When Barack Obama promised to "fundamentally (transform) the United States of America," this is probably not what he had in mind. But like the much-talked-about pivot to Asia, his two most transformational policy initiatives, as identified by his foreign policy staffer Ben Rhodes — Obamacare at home and the Iran nuclear deal abroad — have had disappointing results.
Consider Obamacare. "Insurers are pulling out of the exchanges and premiums are rising," as Bloomberg's Megan McArdle writes. Fewer people are uninsured, but mostly because they're shoved into bare bones Medicaid-type plans, which some studies indicate don't improve health outcomes. We may be seeing death spirals, with higher premiums making healthy people drop coverage until only the very sick buy policies.
One reason for Obamacare's problems is that it was jammed through Congress in defiance of public opinion and contrary to legislative regular order. The public, speaking through the unlikely medium of the voters of Massachusetts, made clear their views when Scott Brown won a January 2010 special election after promising to cast a decisive vote against Obamacare.
That left Democrats with no ideal options. In December, the Senate, with Democrats' 60-vote supermajority, had passed a placeholder measure with plenty of wrinkles to be ironed out. With the 60th vote gone, their options were to jam that bill through a reluctant House or to drop back and negotiate with Republicans on a more limited alternative.
Politicians have to act without the luxury of knowing the future. Barack Obama, at the urging of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, decided to push ahead, in the hopes that after the bill was passed and (as Pelosi said) people learned what was in it, it would be popular. Don't people always want more free stuff?
Not necessarily, it turns out. Obamacare has been tested in hundreds of polls since it became law in March 2010. In just about every one, pluralities and usually majorities have expressed negative feelings about the law. That helped Republicans win majorities in the House in 2010, 2012 and 2014, majorities unwilling to change the law in ways Democrats would like.
Obama's gamble that the law would work as he hoped and promised has failed to date. Health insurance markets and health care delivery have been transformed, but not fundamentally and not sustainably. Mark him incomplete, at best.
Incomplete is also the best mark conceivable for Obama's other attempt at fundamental transformation, the Iran nuclear deal. It's part of his basic approach of spurning traditional allies and courting traditional enemies.
Sometimes this works: Friends stay friendly; enemies change course. But Iran's mullah regime has certainly not done so to date. In lengthy negotiations it extracted concession after concession Obama and John Kerry said they'd never make. They even got secret approval of transfers —in cash — of at least $400 million and apparently $1.3 billion more.
It's plain, however, that Iran's extremists have not given up on their goal of obtaining nuclear weapons, deliverable to Israel, India, Europe and maybe beyond. The best the deal's defenders can say is that it delays the process.
The Iran deal lacked and lacks majority support from the public and in Congress. To prevent a congressional veto, Obama Democrats pushed through an unusual procedure, which reversed the constitutional requirement of two-thirds Senate approval for treaties. Now it just needed one-third.
But all signs are that Iran remains an obdurate enemy, supporting terrorists and spreading its influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Gulf. America's traditional friends in the region are looking for other sources of support.
That seems the case in Asia as well. The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, intended to bolster America's regional lead role, now looks dead, as both major-party presidential nominees oppose it. Which leaves Obama, who never pressed the deal hard with his own party, scampering out of the back of his plane. Some fundamental transformation.