While we normally do not concern ourselves with domestic political affairs in the United States, when the only global power is undergoing substantial political uncertainty, that inevitably affects its behavior and therefore the dynamics of the international system. Thus, we have to address it, at least from the standpoint of U.S. foreign policy. While these things may not matter much in the long run, they certainly are significant in the short run.
To begin thinking about this, we must bear three things in mind. First, while Obama won a major victory in the Electoral College, he did not come anywhere near a landslide in the popular vote. About 48 percent of the voters selected someone else. In spite of the Democrats’ strength in Congress and the inevitable bump in popularity Obama received after he was elected, his personal political strength was not overwhelming. Over the past year, poll numbers indicating support for his presidency have deteriorated to the low 40 percent range, numbers from which it is difficult, but not impossible, to govern.
Second, he entered the presidency off balance. His early focus in the campaign was to argue that the war in Iraq was the wrong war to fight but that the war in Afghanistan was the right one. This positioned him as a powerful critic of George W. Bush without positioning him as an anti-war candidate. Politically shrewd, he came into office with an improving Iraq situation, a deteriorating Afghanistan situation and a commitment to fighting the latter war. But Obama did not expect the global financial crisis. When it hit full blast in September 2008, he had no campaign strategy to deal with it and was saved by the fact that John McCain was as much at a loss as he was. The Obama presidency has therefore been that of a moderately popular president struggling between campaign promises and strategic realities as well as a massive economic crisis to which he crafted solutions that were a mixture of the New Deal and what the Bush administration had already done. It was a tough time to be president.
Third, while in office, Obama tilted his focus away from the foreign affairs plank he ran on to one of domestic politics. In doing so, he shifted from the area where the president is institutionally strong to the place where the president is institutionally weak. The Constitution and American tradition give the president tremendous power in foreign policy, generally untrammeled by other institutions. Domestic politics do not provide such leeway. A Congress divided into two houses, a Supreme Court and the states limit the president dramatically. The founders did not want it to be easy to pass domestic legislation, and tradition hasn’t changed that. Obama can propose, but he cannot impose.
Therefore, the United States has a president who won a modest victory in the popular vote but whose campaign posture and the reality under which he took office have diverged substantially. He has been drawn, whether by inclination or necessity, to the portion of his presidency where he is weakest and most likely to face resistance and defeat. And the weaker he gets politically the less likely he is to get domestic legislation passed, and the defeats will increase his weakness.
He does not, at the moment, have a great deal of public support to draw on, and the level of vituperation from the extremes has reached the level it was with George W. Bush. Where Bush was accused by the extreme left of going into Iraq to increase profits for Halliburton and the oil companies, Obama is being accused by the extreme right of trying to create a socialist state. Add to this other assorted nonsense, such as the notion that Bush engineered 9/11 or that Obama is a secret Muslim, and you get the first whiff of a failed presidency. This is not because of the prospect of midterm reversals — that has happened any number of times. It is because Obama, like Bush, was off balance from the beginning.
If Obama suffers a significant defeat in Congress in the November elections, he will not be able to move his domestic agenda. Indeed, Obama doesn’t have to lose either house to be rendered weak. The structure of Congress is such that powerful majorities are needed to get anything done. Even small majorities can paralyze a presidency.
Under these circumstances, he would have two choices. The first is to go into opposition. Presidents go into opposition when they lose support in Congress. They run campaigns against Congress for blocking their agenda and blame Congress for any failures. Essentially, this was Bill Clinton’s strategy after his reversals in 1994, and it worked in 1996. It is a risky strategy, obviously. The other option is to shift from the weak part of the presidency to the strong part, foreign policy, where a president can generally act decisively without congressional backing. If Congress does resist, it can be painted as playing politics with national security. Since Vietnam, this has been a strategy Republican presidents have used, painting Democratic Congresses as weak on national security.
There is a problem in Obama choosing the second strategy. For Republicans, this strategy plays to their core constituency, for whom national security is a significant issue. It also is an effective tool to reach into the center. The same isn’t true for the Democrats. Obama’s Afghanistan policy has already alienated the Democratic left wing, and the core of the Democratic Party is primarily interested in economic and social issues. The problem for Obama is that focusing on foreign policy at the expense of economic and social issues might gain him some strength in the center, but probably wouldn’t pick him up many Republican votes and would alienate his core constituency.
This would indicate that Obama’s best strategy is to go into opposition, government against Congress. But there are two problems with this. One of the underlying themes of the Obama presidency is that he is ineffective in getting his economic agenda implemented. That’s not really true, given the successes he has had with health-care reform and banking regulation, but it is still a theme. The other problem he has is the sense that he has surged in Afghanistan while setting a deadline for withdrawal and that his Afghan policy is merely a political gesture.
Obama can’t escape national security issues. Clinton could. In 1996, there were no burning issues in foreign policy. There are now two wars under way. Obama can’t ignore them even if his core constituency has a different agenda. Going into opposition against Congress could energize his base, but that base is in the low 40s. He needs to get others on board. He could do that if he could pass legislation he wanted, but the scenario we are looking at will leave him empty-handed when it comes time for re-election. His strongest supporters will see him as the victim, but a victimized president will have trouble putting together a winning coalition in 2012. He can play the card, but there has to be more.
We come back to foreign policy as a place where Obama will have to focus whether he likes it or not. He takes his bearings from Franklin Roosevelt, and the fact is that Roosevelt had two presidencies. One was entirely about domestic politics and the other about foreign policy, or the Depression and then World War II. This was not a political choice for Roosevelt, but it was how his presidency worked out. For very different reasons, Obama is likely to have his presidency bifurcated. With his domestic initiatives blocked, he must turn to foreign policy.
Here, too, Obama has a problem. He ran his campaign, in the Democratic tradition, with a vague anti-war theme and a heavy commitment to the American-alliance structure. He was also a strong believer in what has been called soft power, the power of image as opposed to that of direct force. This has not been particularly successful. The atmospherics of the alliance may be somewhat better under Obama than Bush, but the Europeans remain as fragmented and as suspicious of American requests under Obama as they were under Bush. Obama got the Nobel Prize but precious little else from the Europeans. His public diplomacy initiative to the Islamic world also did not significantly redefine the game. Relations with China have improved but primarily because the United States has given up on revaluation of the yuan. It cannot be argued that Obama’s strategy outside the Islamic world has achieved much. It could be claimed that any such strategy takes time, Obama’s problem is that he is running out of political maneuvering room.
That leaves the wars that are continuing, Iraq and Afghanistan. We have argued that Afghanistan is the wrong war in the wrong place. It is difficult to know how Obama views it, given his contradictory signals of increasing the number of troops but setting a deadline for beginning their withdrawal. We have argued that a complete withdrawal from Iraq without a settlement with Iran or the decimation of Iran’s conventional forces would be a mistake, but we don’t know, obviously, what Obama’s view on this is. We do not know his view of the effect of the Afghan war on U.S. strategic posture or on Pakistan, and we do not know his view of the impact of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq on Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf.
Let’s assume that he has clear views, which is likely for a president, and he is playing a long and quiet game. This would not be a bad strategy if he were stronger and had more time. But if the polls hold he will be weaker and running out of time. It would therefore follow that Obama will come out of the November election having to turn over his cards on the only area where he can have traction — Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. The question is what he might do.
One option is to solve the Iraq problem by attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. This carries the risk, as I have said many times, of Iranian retaliation in the Strait of Hormuz and a massive hit on the Western economic revival. In that sense, a strike against Iranian nuclear targets alone would be the riskiest. Far safer is a generalized air campaign against both Iran’s nuclear and conventional capability.
But launching a new war, while two others go on, is strategically risky. From a political point of view, it would alienate Obama’s political base, many of whom supported him because he would not undertake unilateral military moves. The Republicans would be most inclined to support him, but most would not vote for him under any circumstances. Plus, brilliant military strokes have the nasty habit of bogging down just as mediocre ideas do. That would end the Obama presidency. Clinton’s war in Kosovo was not an easy option for him strategically or politically.
That leaves another option that we have suggested before, one that would appeal both to Obama’s sensibility and to his political situation: pulling a Nixon. In 1971, Richard Nixon reached out to China while Chinese weapons were being used to kill American soldiers in Vietnam. Roosevelt did the same with the Soviets in 1941. There is a tradition in the United States of a diplomatic stroke with ideological enemies to achieve strategic ends.
Diplomatic strokes appeal to Obama. They also would appeal to his political base, while any agreement with Iran that would contribute to an American withdrawal from Iraq and perhaps from Afghanistan would appeal to the center. The Republicans would be appalled, but Obama can’t win them over anyway so it doesn’t matter. Indeed, he can use their hostility to strengthen his own base.
What the settlement with Iran might look like is murky at best. Whether Iran has any interest in such a settlement is murkier still. But if Obama gets hammered in the midterms, his domestic agenda will be frozen. He doesn’t have the personal strength and credibility to run against Congress for two years and then get re-elected. He retains his power in foreign affairs but he has not gotten traction on a multilateral reconstruction of America’s global popularity. He has two wars ongoing, plus a major challenge from Iran. Attacking Iran from the air might or might not work, and it could weaken him politically. That leaves him with running against Congress or addressing the Middle East with a diplomatic masterstroke.
It is difficult to know the ways of presidents, particularly one who has tried hard to be personally enigmatic. But it is easier to measure the political pressures that are confronting him and shaping his decisions. I wouldn’t be so bold as to predict his actions, but I would argue that he faces some unappetizing choices that he could solve with a very bold move in foreign policy. His options on the domestic side will disappear if the polls are right.