Militants’ Rise Upends Obama’s Agenda

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Instead of Focusing on Expansive Domestic Agenda, President Is Being Drawn Back to Mideast Conflicts.

When President Barack Obama speaks to the nation on Wednesday, he won’t merely be discussing his strategy for taking on the militant fighters of Islamic State. He will be acknowledging, tacitly, that he is overseeing a second term radically different from the one he imagined.

In that sense, Mr. Obama has become only the latest American president to learn that history doesn’t afford the occupant of the Oval Office the luxury of choosing what kind of presidency he gets to conduct. A president has many powers, but the power to fully control the tides of history as they form around him isn’t one of them. Like the rest of us, he often is left to respond to them.

This appears to be a painful truth for Mr. Obama, which helps explain why he has been so obviously reluctant—and so dangerously slow, his critics say—to embrace the challenge of confronting the resurgence of radical Islamic forces in Iraq and the dangerous cauldron of instability brewing next door in Syria. The second Obama term was to be about escaping the morass of war and terror emanating from the Muslim world in order to move on to other needs back home; it wasn’t to be about being sucked back into that morass.

The extremist group known as Islamic State has become extremely successful at taking and delegating power in its newly acquired territories in Iraq and Syria. WSJ national security reporter Siobhan Gorman explains the strategy behind their actions. Photo: Associated Press

To grasp the disconnect, it’s worth stepping back to consider the broader arc of the Obama presidency. From the president’s viewpoint, his first term was largely consumed in dealing with the aftermath of giant problems not of his making: the financial collapse of 2008 and the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That left enough political bandwidth to undertake only one other big domestic initiative, which was health-care reform. That task turned out to be so politically fraught that it contributed to Democrats’ loss of the House in 2010—a setback that in turn made it all the harder to move beyond war and economic debates and on to other issues.

The second Obama term, though, was to be the time when those legacy problems were swept away and the path cleared for what Mr. Obama really wanted to pursue, which was a new Democratic domestic agenda. To see that agenda—and to sense how far the second term has drifted away from it—look back at the inaugural address Mr. Obama delivered upon taking the oath of office for the second time in 2013.

“A decade of war is now ending,” Mr. Obama declared from the Capitol’s steps.

Meantime, he said, Americans “still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. ” As recently as this May, in a speech at West Point, Mr. Obama underscored that point, declaring that “U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance.”

Twenty months after his inaugural address, there has been little progress on that domestic agenda. And now Mr. Obama is straining to prevent the perception, at least, that perpetual war is returning.

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