Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Barack Obama's Carter Years

The late secretary of Defense represented the technocratic reality belying the appeal of his charismatic boss.

National Security Council as Secretary of Defense
U.S. President Barack Obama chairs a meeting at the Pentagon of the National Security Council as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter looks on, August 4, 2016. (Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)

Barack Obama is back. 

Clearly at ease, surely at least with himself, but also with a country shuttled off to successors, the 44th president stumped ferociously over the weekend for Democrats as the country races toward (for them anyway) nothing less than a battle between good and evil. Like a bar-room playing Usher’s “Yeah,” Obama brought out the hits from the 2000s shamelessly: “don’t boo: vote”; don’t give into “cynicism” and give up politics (defined merely as showing up to the polls for Democrats); did you hear about that time with the Republicans and the birth certificate?


The central memory of my last encounter with Chicago comes from the drive back to O’Hare. Passengers could take in a fresh billboard emblazoned with the visages of Barack and Michelle advertising the Obama library. Nevermind the duo almost snubbed the Second City entirely. They had to be basically guilted into not selecting New York. The implicit message on that billboard—echoed by Fortune 500 companies—was, as summarized in spirit by the 2005 amoral masterpiece, Lord of War: in my neighborhood, the good get out.

These days, Obama cuts an unco figure in American politics. Few outside the Pod Save America contingent maintain his long presidency wasn’t a disappointment, a jump off the high dive from the lofty dreams of ’08. Far more people quietly diagnose what his administration was: an epoch-shifting failure. This time came from that time. 

Still, “44” is unquestionably the least controversial living president this side of 98 years old: not the worst president in American history; not a past visitor to Jeff’s island; not plausibly running again in 2024. This gives “O” a strange power, as if the force of his charisma might wash out the reality of his time in office. That Joe Biden, Obama’s disfavored lieutenant, became president—not anointed successor Hillary Clinton—is evidence enough of Obama’s limitations. Barack Obama’s time in power worked out well for Barack Obama, and for few others.

The truth is, as we are living through the third, worst term of now: the Obama years were boring.

Case in point: Ash Carter, former secretary of Defense for Obama, who died last week. He was 68. Obama gave a statement but not a shoutout on the trail. Say what you will of Donald Trump, but I think his former employees can always count on him for a superlatively public-facing report card. Years ago—nine-and-a-half—another former Defense secretary told me there was a figure at the Pentagon who knew the place in and out, but he would never get the top job: he wasn’t a politician; he wasn’t a soldier; he wasn’t a celebrity. His name was Ash Carter. 


But Carter took the reins of what he called the “five-sided box” after the strange, failed tenure of Chuck Hagel. 

Basically an academic, Carter was once married to lefty Bates College president Clayton Spencer; he is survived by his second wife, Stephanie, and two children from the first marriage. By all rights, Carter ran a competent, uncontroversial effort to stamp out some of the world’s biggest losers, what Obama notoriously designated the “J.V.” team of the Middle East, the Islamic State. Time will tell if another major Carter move, opening the armed services to transgendered individuals, is just that: something to stand the test of time. 

Like defense-wonk-turned-national-security-advisor H.R. McMaster later, Carter had a thing for North Korea. McMaster toyed with something called a “bloody nose” attack on Pyongyang in 2017. In 2006, Carter wrote in a famous op-ed in the Washington Post: 

Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not. The Bush administration has unwisely ballyhooed the doctrine of "preemption," which all previous presidents have sustained as an option rather than a dogma. It has applied the doctrine to Iraq, where the intelligence pointed to a threat from weapons of mass destruction that was much smaller than the risk North Korea poses.

Carter concluded: “But diplomacy has failed, and we cannot sit by and let this deadly threat mature.” Twelve years later, his boss’s successor would meet and shake hands with North Korea’s leader, something that would not have gone down if Carter had been at the helm and allowed to give the Kim family what some have called “the full Gaddafi,” all costs be damned. 

Carter’s Yale degree, in the outre combo of physics and medieval history, combined with a regal baritone, gave the man an alchemist’s mystique in Washington. In terms of pedigree, comparisons to Robert D. McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War, are not unfair ones. 

But like an Obama speech—the listener lost in the grandeur of the presentation before it is swiftly belied by technocratic malaise—Carter’s career raises a question: wait, what were we even doing here again?