Capitolism

Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Obama: The Foreign Policy President? Part 1

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By Guest Blogger Ryan Berg

In last week’s midterm elections, Republicans made significant inroads in the House and Senate, governorships, and state legislatures across the country.  In the words of the President himself, he received a “shellacking.”  Whether voters delivered President Obama an ideological repudiation or gave Republicans a wide-sweeping “legislative mandate” is not my interest; rather, I am interested in what Obama can do moving forward, with an outlook to his prospects in the 2012 presidential election.

Neither President Obama nor Republicans can legislate unilaterally.  Both sides must compromise to achieve any legislative victories.  Considering Obama had historic majorities in both houses and still had difficulty passing health care legislation, he will not be able to push through any significant legislation without Republican agreement.  Thus, the result will be gridlock or a different legislative agenda focusing on smaller victories in areas Republicans have already outlined as possible compromising points: the earmark process, budget cuts, education spending, and some others.

Most presidents face these circumstances.  Presidents often lose seats in midterm elections.  Reversals of fortune in the midterm elections happened to both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.  Both won reelection.  However, they did so in different ways (discussed below).

Obama has no time to lose in reshaping his presidency.  As I have outlined, in terms of domestic policy he has limited options.  He could, of course, forge ahead (imprudently) with his agenda and watch Republicans (predictably) vote it down.  He would then have the option of running against Republican obstructionism in 2012.  Obama’s second option, like Clinton in 1994, is to sideline his agenda and cooperate with Republicans to reestablish his image as a bridge-building politician willing to fix Washington’s deep political chasms (a major campaign promise of his).

But Obama’s largest option is in the realm of foreign policy.  This is largely a result of American political institutions.  The Founders created a system where presidents are inherently weak in domestic policy, requiring compromise with Congress, and only allowing aggressive action when the president’s political position is strong.  The Founders sought to avoid “tyrannies of the majority,” in Tocqueville’s language, or the “violence of the majority faction,” in James Madison’s parlance.  Conversely, the president has wide unilateral power over foreign policy regardless of Congressional control.  Presidents augment this institutional power further by slowly expanding the scope of executive power and receiving Congressional delegation of authority, for instance, in the controversial War Powers Act.  Obama has the option to appear powerful by using foreign policy.

There are two case studies here: Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.  For Ronald Reagan, it was decisively easier to utilize foreign policy as an instrument to bolster his presidential image.  In 1982-1984, the Soviet Union was looming large and threatening.  Reagan took a hard line approach by deploying missiles in strategic locations and advocating for an anti-missile defense system, which allowed him to burnish his credentials with conservatives and defeat Walter Mondale (the recession also ended before his reelection effort).

The fate of Bill Clinton was entirely different.  For President Clinton, the foreign policy option was not viable in 1994-1996.  With the possible exception of genocide in Rwanda—Clinton later admitted that non-intervention was his “greatest regret” as President—and the short-lived Taiwan Straits crises (essentially, an excuse for the exercise of dominant American naval power), all was quiet on the foreign policy front.

President Obama’s situation is more analogous to President Reagan’s than President Clinton’s.  America is losing foreign policy and military credibility and facing deep international problems as emerging powers such as China and Russia assert themselves, often against American interests.  Becoming a foreign policy president, however, poses political problems for Obama.

Republicans could portray the President as out of touch when most Americans want the economy, jobs, and the deficit to be the focus, not foreign matters.  If Republicans are successful in such a portrayal, Obama is stuck between a rock and a hard place: he must hope for foreign policy successes—or the appearance thereof—coupled with economic recovery.  Another problem is that Obama’s foreign policy campaign promise, and to an extent the first two years of his presidency, featured accommodation as an alternative to the “hawkish” or confrontational stance of his predecessor, George W. Bush, which Obama eschewed as counterproductive and alienating to U.S. partners.  Paradoxically, the tragedy is that the one area in which Obama took a more confrontational stance than his predecessor—Afghanistan—is unlikely to yield foreign policy successes, at least politically rewarding ones.  His choices are negotiation or continued war, the former reinforcing his image as an accomodationist, the latter risking comparisons to Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, deploying more troops without a clear plan of action.  And in fact, at the moment the Obama Administration is preparing for a peace negotiation with the Taliban, a move Republicans will likely portray as a capitulation, not a triumph.  Frankly, this is not an innovative solution.

Thus, what foreign policy decisions can Obama make that would offer him clear political gain? What issues allow him to take innovative positions and thereby gain political momentum? These are questions for my next post.

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