international analysis and commentary

Obama, the domestic trap and the foreign policy gamble


With the notable exceptions of Woodrow Wilson’s second term and Franklin Roosevelt’s third and fourth, all modern American presidents have been elected primarily to deal with domestic problems. The adage attributed to former House Speaker Tip O’Neal echoes across time zones and cultures, “All politics is local.”

Of course the problem is that the real world has a way of intruding on this domestic focus, forcing national specialists to instead deal with the international. Bill Clinton, as the former governor of remote Arkansas, had no experience at all in dealing with the intricacies of foreign policy. Likewise his successor, George W. Bush, had dealt with Mexico but little else during his rather brief foray as Governor of Texas.

This depressing but understandable pattern is repeated over and over again, as it is largely a consequence of the American Constitution. Whereas it is clear from reading the document that the president is only one of several players making economic and domestic policy (witness Obama’s struggles with Congress over health care reform), in matters of foreign policy the president is first among policymaking equals, and has far more constitutional room for maneuver than he does over domestic matters.

Most presidents figure this out somewhere around the halfway point in their terms. As domestic initiatives stall, and the White House uses up its honeymoon capital in the first few years in office, by default the only route left to historical significance becomes foreign policy. Jimmy Carter only got serious about Middle East peace as his domestic agenda came to a complete standstill. Likewise, President Reagan’s second term was highlighted by his winding down of the Cold War with Gorbachev; after the Iran-Contra foreign affair was the only political avenue left open to the Great Communicator.

Perhaps Bill Clinton best exemplifies this trend. Overwhelmingly elected to correct what seemed like George H.W. Bush’s overemphasis on foreign affairs, Clinton’s campaign team famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid,” and promised to focus like a laser beam on domestic matters. Of course, things did not turn out that way. After the defeat of the Clinton White House’s signature domestic program of health care reform, the Republicans politically stormed back, retaking Congress and effectively shutting off any chance of significant domestic policy initiatives emanating from the Executive Branch. But Bill Clinton proved as resilient as ever. Instead focusing on bringing peace at last to Northern Ireland, Clinton, along with his patient and masterful envoy, George Mitchell, played a large role in the miracle that was the end of the troubles in Northern Ireland, a conflict that had unhappily simmered for centuries.

Beyond this accomplishment, President Clinton also came very close to achieving the seemingly impossible, bringing about peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Here, in many ways, the former President simply ran out of time. As his second term was fast coming to an end, he was forced by this constitutional reality to ask too much of both Yassir Arafat and Ehud Barak, as he simply couldn’t wait for a slower, more organic process to flower. More than anything else, the clock simply ran out for Clinton, with the holy grail of Middle East peace so tantalizingly close.

Making Sure the Immediate Does Not Obscure the Essential
Paradoxically, it is this process that Barack Obama should think about as Congress returns to Washington after the summer recess. For compared to Bill Clinton, or any other recent president, Obama’s domestic agenda is simply overwhelming. David Axelrod and the other campaign wizards of the Obama team know that they were running neck-and-neck with John McCain until the collapse of Lehman brothers; after that Obama won the election in a walk.

Elected to guide the country through one of the worst recessions since the 1930s, the President has focused on bailing out the financial system, passing the biggest stimulus package on record, saving insurance giant AIG, mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the auto industry, and to enact health care reform – a segment of the economy accounting for a whopping 16% of America’s overall economic activity. To gaze over the list of what the administration has been up to over this first year is to be exhausted. And that is precisely the problem.

For Americans increasingly have the feeling that while some of this has been necessary, some of it is, as Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel put it, taking advantage of a crisis. For example, while bailing out the financial industry strikes most observers as vital, there was no immediate political demand to take on health care reform in the midst of the government’s vastly increased spending program. It seems as if the President, like a confident gambler in Las Vegas, is intent on perpetually doubling down, trying to enact as much of his domestic agenda as quickly as he can, whatever the practical merits of such an approach.

There are obvious political problems with this domestic adventurism. The President’s approval rating is down to around 50%, having started at the stratospheric 70% mark; this is the third sharpest plummet in presidential popularity since 1945. A plurality of Americans are against his health care initiative, just as they are deeply worried about the vast long-term deficit Obama admits the country will run. The White House projects a ten-year deficit of $9 trillion, up from a whopping $2 trillion since its projections just three months ago. While Democrats are still generally with the President, it is the critical group of independents, the very people who were central to Obama’s magnificent victory, who are now deserting him in droves over the economy. The whole domestic program hangs in the balance, with the White House’s health care proposals likely to prove central to the whole presidency.

It’s the World, Stupid
But there is another, wholly neglected downside to the President’s immersion in domestic affairs. While it is nice to think that people in Washington can walk and chew gum at the same time, in reality, given the size and complexity of the American government, no White House can do more than (at best) a couple of big things at a time. And as for all the drama of rightful focus on America’s domestic woes over the past year, foreign policy issues are going begging, issues that over the long term may matter as much or more than a great deal of what the President has been immediately dealing with.

First among these issues, is the primary strategic challenge of the new multipolar era; can the US and the West find a way to reform the international architecture to include the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and the other rising powers in a new great power directorate to facilitate global governance. Put another way, can the world’s elite power clubs take in the rising powers, making them stakeholders in furthering global stability, or will they turn their backs on the present order, and will we truly live in the jungle of overt great power rivalries and tensions again?

This is a difficult concept to grasp, not easily fitting on the back of a bumper sticker. But I have little doubt it will amount to being Barack Obama’s Harry Truman moment. Either Obama, along with Europe, will reorder a new world, or the moment will pass, never to return as American and European power continues to decline. To do this, America and its friends will have to think creatively, finding ways to increase China and India’s role in international institutions, while correspondingly decreasing their own role, if these clubs are to truly approximate the power realities of today and genuinely begin to work. Simply put, this is the ball game for the multipolar world; the rising powers will continue to rise, that much is certain. What is entirely up for grabs is whether they do so working with the West, or smashing the old order.

Given what he’s been through, I don’t imagine the President has given this seemingly esoteric strategic idea a great deal of thought. And that is entirely understandable. But he must. For history and foreign affairs have a way of catching up to presidents as well as to America. For all the sound and fury of the present domestic moment, this long-term rendezvous with destiny must be thought about and planned for as well. Or, as happened to Bill Clinton, Barack Obama will come upon this key insight, but far too late in the day.