Daniel W. Drezner

What now? Barack Obama, bad boyfriends, and the good people who do dumb things

What now? Barack Obama, bad boyfriends, and the good people who do dumb things

As the new foreign policy leader, Barack Obama will inherit a wonderful political gift – one that will hopefully counteract a first-year liability that will inevitably surprise him. 

Obama’s inheritance is the Bad Boyfriend Benefit.  Personal experience, combined with the consumption of way too many Sex and the City episodes, has taught me that one of the easiest gigs in the world is to be the next boyfriend after a bad one.  Because the contrast is so sharp, the legacy of a bad boyfriend is that if the new one is simply adecent human being, they can still have the overwhelming support of friends and family. 

To put this in more concrete terms – the contrast between Bush and Obama is so sharp that he will automatically benefit by the comparison.  Even when president Obama continues the policies of his predecessor, the initial focus will be on the changes rather than the continuities.  This will buy the Obama administration some much-needed goodwill in its first year of office. 

The new president will need that goodwill, because it’s a virtual certainty that the administration’s first year will not be covered in foreign policy glory.  In George W. Bush’s first year, the United States needlessly infuriated its allies through peremptory unilateral withdrawals from multilateral treaties.  In Bill Clinton’s first year, the United States badly damaged its bilateral relationship with Japan and committed numerous blunders in Somalia. In George H.W. Bush’s first six months, the new administration dithered over how to respond to Mikhail Gorbachev. 

New administrations do this, because top policymakers usually believe that their prior policymaking experience will serve them well in their new job.  Except that things change.  New technologies require ever faster responses.  New issues force their way onto the policy agenda.  New bureaucracies have to be managed.  And so on. 

Even if they live up to their hype, the new administration is gonna screw up.  What might save them is that they will not screw up in the same way as their predecessors. 

Questions to readers:  on which policy dimension will the Obama administration show the greatest improvement compared to Bush?  And on which dimension will they screw up?