Washington Post Halfway Out of the Obama Tank?

In October 2008, the Washington Post endorsed Senator Barack Obama to be the 44th president of the United States. The endorsement was unusual. The endorsement differed with Obama on a number of substantive issues, and you could cherry-pick enough information to build a reasonable case for Obama’s rival, Senator John McCain. The endorsement seemed to be based more on mythic qualities the Post’s editors ascribed to the candidate — “supple intelligence,” “sophisticated understanding of the world,” “nimbleness and steadfastness,” and “preternaturally confident,” for example — rather than any actual qualities or accomplishments.

Still, the editors didn’t want to get to carried away and allowed:

Mr. Obama has the potential to become a great president. Given the enormous problems he would confront from his first day in office, and the damage wrought over the past eight years, we would settle for very good.

With President Obama’s term now three-quarters over, how has he fared by the Washington Post’s standards? In the area of foreign policy, a strong case could be made from the Post’s editorials that President Obama has not even reached the bar of “very good.”

Chief among the endorsement’s concerns about candidate Obama was that he would insist “… on withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq on a fixed timeline.” This past December, a Washington Post editor — with the piece “In Iraq, a return to old enmities” — criticized the president for failing to listen to his military chiefs in this regard. In September 2009, another editorial titled “Bob Woodward’s book portrays a great divide over Afghanistan” faulted the president for being too eager to withdraw from Afghanistan. While the endorsement only mentioned Iraq, the mindset it criticized was evident in the president’s dealings with Afghanistan, too.

President Obama’s zeal for withdrawing troops is not the only source of concern for the editors of the Washington Post. Two years ago, in “The U.S. quarrel with Israel,” they observed:

President Obama’s Middle East diplomacy failed in his first year in part because he chose to engage in an unnecessary and unwinnable public confrontation with Israel over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The piece also expressed wonder as to why the president chose to confront Israel over the announcement to build new apartments in Ramat Shlomo. Given the importance the president attached to advancing the peace process, the Post’s rebuke is significant.

This March, a number of editorials criticized different aspects of Obama’s foreign policy. On March 2 and again on March 7, editorials demanded that the administration take action against the Syrian government. Subsequently, one editorial faulted the president for his naivete in dealing with North Korea, and another criticized him for sticking to a deadline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan regardless of the consequences.

The Post’s editors have not been uniformly critical of the administration’s foreign policy. For example, one recent editorial supported the president’s interest in allowing more time for sanctions to work against Iran, and another praised his approach to a trade dispute with China. Despite these positive notices, it’s hard not to get the impression that even according to the Washington Post, Barack Obama, rather than displaying a “sophisticated” understanding of the world, is overmatched by it.

How the United States wound down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were two of the most important foreign policy issues facing Barack Obama when he was inaugurated. Now a newspaper that supported him questions his approach to both, something it was concerned about even before the election. President Obama was the one who elevated the importance of the peace process, which is now dormant, in part due to his own miscues.

Given the Post’s strong criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy, could we expect to see some buyer’s remorse this coming October when the Washington Post endorses a candidate for president?

I doubt it.

A recent editorial faulted Mitt Romney and Republicans generally for drifting “… toward the irresponsible right” for opposing President Obama’s health-care plan. Apparently, the editors are seeking to establish that Obama’s opposition in November will be well out of the mainstream. It’s ironic that it’s Romney — who is unpopular among those who self-identify as “very conservative” — who’s being portrayed as extremist. (Inconveniently for the Post, subsequently reported projections from the Congressional Budget Office show that ObamaCare will be significantly more expensive than originally estimated. Given the false and misleading assumptions of ObamaCare costs, it is the plan’s supporters who are being irresponsible.)

Overall, the Post’s editors seem more concerned with ObamaCare and global warming than they are with foreign affairs. It’s a shame. Yet in contrast to the New York Times, the Washington Post’s editorial board has demonstrated a seriousness about foreign policy. This is probably due to the presence on the editorial board of Fred Hiatt and Jackson Diehl, both of whom write thoughtfully about foreign policy in their individual commentaries.

An endorsement of President Obama’s opponent in October or even a refusal to endorse either candidate (as the Post did in 1988) would serve as a sharp rebuke to the president for his diplomatic failures and would make a statement about the importance of foreign policy. But this would require the Washington Post’s editorial board to look at the reality of what President Obama has wrought and acknowledge that the man they supported four years ago was a fantasy.