Throughout his first five months in office, Barack Obama has been dealing with one crisis after another. To date, his presidency might be the most challenging since Franklin Roosevelt’s, if not Abe Lincoln’s. While he hasn’t had to face anything like the Great Depression or the collapse of the union, he did assume office in the midst of an economic meltdown that almost overshadowed the two on-going wars he inherited.
But Obama’s election, and his continuing popularity, have largely rested on his personality, or, to be more specific, his public persona. And that persona is a combination of high intelligence and coolness under fire. Thus, while his election opponent acted as if the sky was falling when the financial markets collapsed last September, Obama maintained a calm exterior, promising to fix the mess when he was elected. The voters believed him, as his sizeable victory verified.
As president, Obama has been pretty much as advertised. His intelligence is apparent and his ability to seem, if not be, calm is ever-present. His early weaknesses, such as they have been, are largely of the learning-curve variety (e.g. understanding how truly independent Congress can be, stumbling over some cabinet-level selections, some would say trying to tackle too much) and have been essentially offset by an intense energy level in his work and an unwavering commitment to policy initiatives (in health care especially).
But last week, for the first time, the country got to see how the new president would react to an unexpected major international development. Apparently Joe Biden had been prescient when he told a campaign crowd last fall that Obama would be tested within the first six months of his presidency (the remark was considered a political gaffe at the time), because suddenly last week the Iranian presidential election turned into a potential crisis, if not a real one.
Events are still unfolding on the ground in Iran, but the autocratic/theocratic regime that emerged from the Islamic revolution that took place 30 years ago is now unsettled and in danger of being diminished, if not toppled.
The irony in the uprising that has been on display in the streets of Tehran is that it resulted from an election of a titular president with nominal powers. The real governmental power in Iran rests with the clerics, led by the Ayatollah who really runs the country. His word is deemed to be law, irrespective of what the president says.
The citizens of Iran don’t get to vote for the Ayatollah. Instead, they elect their president, and with the current holder of that office, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seeming to have fallen out of favor with the populace, a real contest for his office seemed to have developed.
His principal rival for the job, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was portrayed as more moderate, reflecting a growing desire, especially among Iran’s young, to be more open to Western culture (and, perhaps, to Western democracy).
The incumbent had the presumed backing of the clerics. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had declared last summer that he envisioned Ahmadinejad as president for another five years (meaning a second term). But the people, whose votes would presumably count, were of a different view, and throughout the campaign, Mousavi attracted far larger crowds to his rallies than his opponent.
Sentiment for Mousavi seemed to peak in the days before the election when President Obama delivered his Cairo speech, in which he offered the hand of friendship to the Iranian people. Reports from Iran suggested a close election, if not a possible upset in favor of Mousavi.
But it was not to be. Instead, within scant hours of the closing of the polls (in which almost 40 million votes were cast), Ahmadinejad was declared the clear winner, with 63 per cent of the vote (compared to 34 per cent for Mousavi).
In the face of this development, the people of Iran protested, loudly and clearly. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Tehran and in other major cities. They demanded a re-vote, not a re-count, since they were convinced that the election results were fraudulent.
The scene seemed chaotic until the Ayatollah spoke to the nation over the weekend. The election was valid, he declared, and the protests should stop. He emphasized the “should” part of his remarks by threatening a violent crackdown if the protests continued. They have continued, and the crackdown has been ongoing in the days since.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, everyone had an opinion on how the president should respond. Neo-cons all but demanded that Obama speak forcefully in support of the Iranian protesters. Citing Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” and “tear down this wall!” speeches, they argued that an aggressive U.S. posture would embolden the protesters and enhance the likelihood that the anti-American regime would fall.
It was wild-eyed rhetoric of the kind that reminded dispassionate observers not of Reagan but of Mr. Obama’s predecessor. But the current president played it cool, reasoning that a belligerent U.S. response would only feed into the hands of the rulers in Iran, who would seize on statements in support of the protests to argue that the protesters were mere pawns of the anti-Islamic West.
And so, Mr. Obama has been restrained in his comments, reminding Iran that the world is watching, urging the regime not to use violence to crush the protesters, but otherwise refraining from any comments that might sound judgmental of the election process and the claims of fraud.
While not as pivotal a moment for his presidency, there is in the way in which this president has handled this sudden development, a similarity to the way John F. Kennedy handled the Cuban missile crisis.
Then, the equivalent of today’s neo-cons urged JFK to bomb the missile sites in Cuba, potentially triggering a destructive nuclear war. Instead, the young president sought a more restrained alternative, the naval blockade. War was averted, and an infant named Barack Hussein Obama lived to become the president who may face similar threats during his presidency.
Based on his handling of this international earthquake, his country appears to be in good hands.