On Wednesday, David Gergen ranked a supposed foreign policy accomplishment of President Obama higher than the killing of Osama bin Laden during CNN's special coverage of the Democrat's "historic..decision to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba," as anchor Erin Burnett put it. Gergen contended that "ultimately, he's going to be judged very favorably by history – not by conservatives today – but by history on climate change. It probably is the most significant thing he's done – the breakthrough he had with China." [video below]
The political analyst added that if Obama "can get the world to a better agreement, that's going to go down as a major legacy." He also claimed that climate change is "at the heart of the new foreign policy agenda."
Burnett led into a panel discussion with Gergen, Republican strategist Ana Navarro, and liberal historian Douglas Brinkley with her "historic" labeling of the President's announcement, and wondered, "How will this decision impact the President's two-term legacy? Something the entire world wonders...at this moment." She continued with more praise of the chief executive, and outlined a list of his apparent foreign policy "highlights:"
ERIN BURNETT: So, when you start thinking about this president – this historic president – the first black president of the United States, David Gergen, there are many firsts. There are many moments in history that he will have, just because he is Barack Obama. But then, the question is his legacy – his achievements. What does he have?
Tonight, we're talking about the U.S. Cuba deal. So, on the foreign policy, I just looked through to say, what are some highlights for this president? Not all of these are uncontroversial, but – but some of them are. He killed Osama bin Laden. I think everybody in the United States and around the world agree that was an achievement. He's going to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan, and secured the release of Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban. Obviously, that's a controversial one. But – but all of those things are on his list.
The CNN journalist did acknowledge after her list that "people point to so many negatives on foreign policy front to Iraq; to Syria; to the spread of Islamic radicalism in North Africa. These are serious, serious problems. These have gotten worse during his presidency." She then turned to Gergen and asked, "Does he have a chance of being successful when history judges him on foreign policy?" The guest replied by citing former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who claimed that the killing of bin Laden was "the most courageous decision he's seen any president make in 50 years of being in service."
Gergen continued with his eyebrow-raising climate change answer. However, he did admit that Mr. Obama's foreign policy has some drawbacks:
DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISOR: ...He's got some negatives. He's lacked strategy all the way through this. It had been tactical or very reactive – the turnaround on the (unintelligible) battle on Syria, I think, will always be-
BURNETT: Drawing the red line, backing off-
GERGEN: Right. And then, we got a whole slew of things that are unresolved. They're not determined yet. Who can say whether he's successful or not with Iran, which is so important; with Israel and the Palestinians – so important; with Syria, ISIS, Iraq, Afghanistan – all of those are incomplete.
Burnett continued her cheerleading for the President in her first question to Brinkley. He responded by comparing him to one of his Democratic predecessors:
BURNETT: Doug...when you look back at all the presidents that you look at and their historical record, is there a president who, on the foreign policy front, has had as many seeming failures as this president may have; and still, when time goes by, those turn into successes – that he could still be seen as success. Do you think it's possible?
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, there are some elements of Jimmy Carter in Barack Obama. But Carter, for all of the failures, had some foreign policy successes – the Camp David peace accord. The Panama Canal treaties, which was very divisive, is similar, in many ways, to what's going on here – you know, in Cuba tonight – meaning, a kind of a realignment of the hemisphere.
But, you know, for two-term presidents, it's been rocky. I mean, Eisenhower gets high marks in foreign policy of recent presidents. Bill Clinton looks better – but when Clinton was leaving office, nobody thought Clinton was a genius at foreign affairs....In fact, Al Gore, in 2000, didn't even want to be on a stage with him. But I think right now, the verdict's out. But to judge presidents on the Middle East is going to be tough in the – in the age of terror, because it's always going to be dysfunctional over there.
BURNETT: Right. It's tough.
Later in the segment, Navarro cited a debate from 2008 where Obama was "talking about extending an olive branch to our enemies and engaging with our enemies," and underlined that "that hasn't work very well so far. It hasn't worked well with North Korea. It has not worked well with Iran. It hasn't worked well with the Russian reset. And so, there was probably a lot of idealism in candidate Obama that have not turned into successes for President Obama." Gergen replied by conceding the Republican's point:
GERGEN: I must say, I don't think he's a very good negotiator. I don't think he uses his power – I don't think he's comfortable using power-
BURNETT: Would you be comfortable – sorry to interrupt you. But today, Republican Marco Rubio – Republican senator – said on another network, 'Barack Obama is the worst negotiator that we've had as president since Jimmy Carter; and maybe, in the modern history of this country.'
GERGEN: I think it's worth recalling it – when President Obama ran for office, he did promise he would normalize relations with Cuba – and he has done that. But when he said that, he said, I'm going to get gains on democracy. Those are not here. That's why conservatives were upset. What did he get for all of this?
Negotiating with the Russians; negotiating with the Syrians, negotiating with the Chinese – you can look at a whole series of things people point to and say, 'He's not very comfortable with power.' I frankly think that.
The obvious follow-up question: if Gergen thinks that the President isn't a "very good negotiator," then why can't he apply that to the supposed "breakthrough he had with China" on climate change? Back in November 2014, conservative economist Stephen Moore pointed out that "Chinese President Xi Jinping tipped his true intentions with his solemn joint declaration with Obama that China hereby 'targets to peak CO2 emissions around 2030, with the intention to try to peak early.'" As Moore emphasized, "Intends to. Gee, that's an ironclad promise you can take to the bank."
Moments later, Burnett wondered if "that's why he's pushing so hard for Iran." The former presidential advisor replied, "Well, but there's such a thing as pushing too hard for a deal – and people are very, very worried in the neighborhood. Some of our best friends are very worried that he's going to get a deal that's not a very good deal for us. It could be dangerous still for us."
Near the end of the segment, the CNN anchor shifted her praise for President Obama to the area of the economy, which Brinkley joined in:
BURNETT: ...I was originally a market reporter, so I wanted to look at the economy – okay? And on the economy – now, President Obama took over, as every viewer watching this show around the world knows, at the worst possible time for the global economy. So, you'd expect his numbers to be good. But they're better than good – the stock market has more than doubled; gas prices are at their lowest level in four years in the United States; unemployment rate in the United States is down 26 percent. So, you could look at all of that, Doug, and you could say, 'Well, that's just because he took over at the nadir' – true. But last year alone, the Dow had its best year since 1996. There have been economic highlights for this president that nobody seems to really talk about.
BRINKLEY: Exactly, and I think – you know, he inherited the great recession. By the time he leaves office, we're going to say, how is the economy? If it's – if it's booming, or if it's even humming along, like it is now, he's going to get fairly high marks on that.
And there is a connection with foreign affairs. I mean, what President Obama has going for him, Erin, is he doesn't overreact sometimes. You know, some presidents may have sent our troops into Syria by now. Would that really have been a good idea? Some people would have overreacted to what happened in the Ukraine. President Obama put on economic sanctions with Russia. By all accounts, Putin is suffering big time right now.
But we are – live in a world where we want a quick results. Everyday, we want to see the President do something, and I think he's done, in many ways, a very credible job on not jumping the gun. We were a generation feeling exhausted from the war in Iraq, and we were exhausted from the great recession. And I think there – there should be a feeling of optimism right now that we're incrementally getting better.
BURNETT: Quick – final word to you, David.
GERGEN: Two things: I think that Doug's right about Russia. We should wait and see. Maybe these sanctions are really going to force Putin's hand. And I do believe this: President Obama got a lot of blame for the slowest recovery – you know, since the Great Depression. So he deserves credit now for an economy that's improving. The country is better – the country looks better. A lot of people in this country are still suffering, so he's not there yet.
BURNETT: They are – and the unemployment rate, when you look down deep at the numbers, can be tough too. Sanctions certainly hurting Russia – although that plunge in the ruble is helping them in the oil front, too.