So, President Obama says that he has been making progress hitting singles and doubles rather than swinging for the fences, and people are upset that he is not more ambitious. What to make of it?
Well, first, it says a lot about Obama's deliberative style--he took months and months to figure out whether to surge in Afghanistan in 2009. And it was a hedged decision--not as many troops as McChrystal wanted (although the high number was almost certainly offered to get Obama to choose the middle recommendation) with a deadline.
Second, the US has less resources to dedicate to foreign policy thanks to the costs of the past decade's wars (resources in terms of money, spare military power, political capital, domestic support). Do you want to swing for the fences and risk many, many strikeouts or do you want to advance rather consistently but slowly?
Third, as a status quo power--that the US wants to keep its position--it is not clear why gambling on big wins makes a whole lot of sense, as compared to just trying to stay ahead.
Still, there is a problem: one can only be a successful singles/doubles hitter if one is very consistent. Tony Gwynn amassed great stats over his career because he did not create many outs. If you still strike out a lot, then it really becomes hard to score, whatever that means.
If one wants to use baseball analogies, the temptation is to play with advanced statistics: not home runs batted in but WAR (wins above replacement) or VORP (Value over replacement player). Would someone else have done better in these circumstances than Obama: Bush? McCain? Palin? Romney? Perry? Wow, the Republican bench kind of sucks. The value of the advanced stats is that they take into account context such as whether one's homefield is a hitter's park or a pitcher's park and so on.
There are good reasons to criticize Obama's foreign policy--the red line in Syria turned out to be a big mistake. However, I do appreciate the effort not to swing for the fences in big, risky initiatives. It has been a very hard decade for the United States in the world--two wars with uncertain outcomes, much more force deployed elsewhere with mixed results, grappling with a Great Recession, facing a Rising China, and now a revanchist Russia. The choices are not so easy, and I am not sure whether swinging for the fences makes sense when most of these problems present few good alternatives and many bad ones.
Again, the President could have dealt with many of these challenges better, but engage in riskier behavior? No thanks. So, given the players in the league, Obama with his small ball strategy might just have a positive VORP (value over replacement president).
Of course, in May 2011 he closed his eyes and stepped into the knuckleball that was the bin Laden raid.
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