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Only Foreign Policy Can Rescue Obama's Second Term

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

My friend Jim Mann warned me not to belittle second terms. Jim, who wrote about Ronald Reagan’s triumphant second term, is certainly right. But there is a pattern with second terms that begins with Theodore Roosevelt and is fairly consistent: Presidents usually only make significant achievements in foreign policy, where they have a free hand. They don’t, as a rule, do much of anything in domestic policy, and they often don’t do much to help their party and its candidate in the next election.

Barack Obama seems to be following this pattern. His domestic agenda has ground to a halt; his political legacy could be more negative than positive; and if he does anything outstanding in his second term, it will be in foreign relations. Obama is turning out to be not as great a president as some of his ardent supporters hoped; and not as terrible as many of his detractors have charged. His presidency is more transitional than transformational—and what it may be transitional to is a more conservative Republican administration. Here is how his second term is shaping up. 


In his Second Inaugural address, Obama flagged climate change (which is an international as well as domestic issue), immigration reform, and comprehensive tax reform (who even remembers that now?) as key issues in his second term. In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Obama made new gun control legislation a major priority. Obama has been able to do a few things on these issues by executive order, but in so far as major change depends on Congressional approval, he has not succeeded and probably won’t succeed.

In his second inaugural and his State of the Union, Obama also proposed ambitious new spending on technology and infrastructure. He is unlikely to get that either. At best, he will be able to restore some of the cuts from the sequester that took effect last spring. He is now advocating a boost to the minimum wage, but he and the Democrats weren’t even able to secure an extension of unemployment benefits. On the domestic front, Obama has been fighting a purely defensive battle. It usually only gets worse in the last two years.


Obama’s initiatives on immigration could prove politically useful—probably more so if House Republicans continue to block them. Obama and future Democratic presidential candidates have a demographic tailwind at their backs from America’s growing Hispanic population. And Obama and the Democrats have also benefitted from the strength of right-wing extremists in the Republican Party. During last September’s Republican-led shutdown, Democratic polling numbers skyrocketed. The Democrats’ popularity, and the Republicans’ lack of viable centrist candidates, led to a Democratic sweep in the Virginia state elections. But since then, Democratic chances for success in 2014 and possibly also in 2016 have plummeted.

There are two factors at work. First, mainstream Republicans and their business supporters learned from the shutdown that they would have to distance the party from the Tea Party movement or risk continued failure in national elections. And they have begun to do so. Businesses have vigorously supported incumbents like Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson who face challenges from Tea Party or Club for Growth favorites. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a prime GOP booster, has promised that there will be “no fools on our ticket.”  And in Congress, enough Republicans backed the compromise budget agreement between Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray to get it through Congress. That agreement will probably avert another shutdown, and it positions the Republicans much closer to the center, where they can hope to challenge the Democrats.

The second factor is the failure of the Obama administration to deliver on its signature healthcare initiative, the Affordable Care Act. Partly. It’s the web snafus; but it’s also discontent sown among various constituencies–middle class schedule C people who will now have to pay higher premiums, unions whose workers will lose benefits, workers at mid-size businesses who will be shifted to part-time employment so that their employers don’t have to pay for their healthcare, and people who won’t be able to retain their plans. They are likely to become a much noisier and salient opposition than those who initially benefit from the plan.

The administration could, of course, fix the program, as Social Security was eventually expanded and improved, but that requires supportive majorities in Congress. Instead, Obama and the Democrats are caught in a disastrous catch-22 where the failings of the program (about which Republicans warned for four years) will make it nearly impossible to win the majorities necessary to remedy them. (With cuts in the offing, and doctors dropping out, Medicare looks like it is also going to run into trouble, which seniors are likely to blame on the Obama administration.) Healthcare, once a bountiful garden for the Democrats, has become a desolate plain.

The Democrats are unlikely take back the House in 2014. The Democratic edge in the generic House polls, which soared during the shutdown, has completely disappeared. Republicans now have a five percent edge in the CNN poll. Republicans already enjoy an advantage from incumbency and districting. In 2012, Democrats were very slightly ahead in the generic poll before the election, but came 33 seats short of winning back the House. They probably need about a five percent lead in these polls to have a chance of taking back the House.

The Democrats could also lose the Senate in November. Republicans need to add six seats. They are likely to win Democratic seats in West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana. They could win seats in North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska and maybe even Michigan. No Republican seats appear endangered. In early September, North Carolina Democratic Senator Kay Hagan led her possible Republican opponents Mark Harris and Greg Brannon by 14 and 16 percent respectively in the PPP poll. Now she is tied with Harris and two points behind Brannon. Voter disappointment and disgust with Obamacare could eventually fade, but is not likely do so before November. 

Foreign Affairs 

Obama had a decidedly mixed record in foreign policy during his first term. He wound down the war in Iraq, as promised, captured Osama Bin Laden, and crippled al Qaeda as a centrally-organized movement, but he botched the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, pursued a contradictory strategy in Afghanistan (promoting a surge and a deadline for withdrawal at the same time), misjudged the Arab Spring, and issued “red lines” on Syria and Iran that he was in no position to enforce. He also announced a pivot to Asia, but except for shifting some military forces to Asia, Obama has remained mired in the Middle East and South Asia, as his predecessor had been.

So far, Obama’s second term looks more promising. After Susan Rice’s prospects at State fell victim to the Republican-manufactured scandal over a Benghazi coverup, Obama turned to John Kerry, who has so far been outstanding. He revived the peace process and pushed forward negotiations with Iran. Obama and Kerry are not likely to get both an Israeli-Palestinian and an Iranian deal. My suspicion, and also that of Palestinian negotiators, is that to secure an Iran deal without causing a rift with the Israelis, Obama and Kerry will have to allow the Israeli government to set terms for peace that the Palestinians are likely to reject. But if Obama and Kerry get either, it will be a major achievement—and be enough on its own to mark Obama’s second term as successful.

Where Obama and Kerry are not likely to enjoy much success is Syria. In Syria, the Obama administration initially hoped that Basher Assad would appease the rebels with genuine reforms; then they seemed to hope for a rebel victory; now they appear to hope for a negotiated settlement imposed by themselves, the European Union and the Russians and in which Assad himself participates. But the Assad government believes it now has the upper hand militarily; and the rebels are increasingly dominated by radical Islamists who brook no compromise. Earlier, American military aid to the rebels might have forced Assad to negotiate, but the Islamist ascendancy, and Congressional opposition, has ruled out anything other than a diplomatic initiative. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria all look like they might become havens for international terrorists. That makes some kind of success with Iran or Israel-Palestine imperative.

Obama’s strength as a political campaigner and as a president has been his ability to frame issues in boldest terms—from his 2004 convention speech to his Cairo speech in 2009 to his recent address on inequality and social immobility. Obama’s rhetoric has created a framework for his domestic and foreign policies, and he has had some success in both. Obama and Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke deserve some credit for preventing a global economic breakdown in 2009; and Obama and the Democrats did pass significant legislation on healthcare and financial reform in his first two years. Obama’s failings have been due in part to an intransigent opposition on Capitol Hill.

But there is also no disguising Obama’s failings as president, which have become more evident in the last year. He speaks well, but is less adept at getting programs through Congress—financial reform, for instance, was in the end watered-down and will be subject to manipulation by financial interests. He has also proven deficient, as the Obamacare rollout has showed, at the sheer process of governing—of getting things done. That’s partly due to inexperience—our political system allows us to elevate people to the presidency who have had no experience administering large bureaucracies or dealing with world leaders. But it also appears due to an unwillingness to delegate the execution of policy to people who do have some experience at their jobs. That’s why Kerry’s success so far seems to stand out among Obama’s five years of appointments.

In domestic policy, Obama has been felled by a reluctance to sweat the details; in foreign policy, by an inability to match means and ends. In Afghanistan, Obama initiated a policy that, on one hand, seemed designed to secure a military victory over the Taliban and, on the other hand, conceded defeat from the beginning. In Syria, the administration couldn’t decide what its objective was. In Asia, too, it is entirely unclear what the administration’s military buildup is intended to accomplish, and, more important, what it could accomplish.

Lastly, Obama has suffered from something you would least expect from a politician, and a very successful campaigner. Once in office, he seems to have lost track of the relationship between policy and politics. In his first year, he allowed the rightwing to capture the anger created by Wall Street malfeasance; during his first three years, he kept taking his eye off the everyday consequences of his policies for creating jobs and ending the Great Recession. In foreign policy, he issued “red lines” that, it turns out, the American public was in no mood to enforce—which, after he won the presidency partly because of public opposition to the Iraq war, should have been somewhat obvious.

But, of course, being president is one of the hardest jobs in the world, perhaps the hardest, and made more difficult by America’s Constitutional regime, which gives the president the status but not the power of a king. During their administrations, presidents tend to be judged on the full panoply of their efforts, as I have done here. But in retrospect, what will stand out are their dramatic failures and successes. As an ex-Californian, I bristle at the idea that Ronald Reagan was a successful president, but he won’t be remembered for his egregious tax cuts or the Iran-Contra scandal, but for his negotiations with the Soviet Union. Obama still has a chance of ending his two years as one of the successful presidents, but it will depend largely on what he accomplishes in foreign policy.