- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
I can’t wait for Barack Obama’s second term.
Oh I know, 2013 is a long time from now and it would be nice to have decisive leadership to help deal with the odd double dip recession, Iranian nuclear threat, massive fiscal imbalance, remaking of the world order, that sort of thing.
But honestly, I just don’t expect it. It is clear from events of the past few weeks that while it’s July in most of America, it’s already November in Washington. Every decision is cast in the context of the mid-term elections. No risk is too small to sidestep. No decision is too trivial to triangulate.
Getting reports of growing unemployment rolls? Compounding them with signs of sluggish growth and appalling developments in the housing market? A time for action? You might think so. But instead this president and this Congress hem and haw and propose effectively nothing. It’s not just the Republicans blocking with appalling callousness the extension of unemployment benefits (while also fighting hard to ensure that big banks don’t have too much of a tax burden). It’s that the Democratic leadership is content to let the Republicans beat back the bill figuring they can use it against them in the election.
Lost in all this? Oh, right, the 9.5 percent of Americans who are "officially" unemployed not to mention the almost equally large number who don’t make it into government statistics.
Is the reason for this fear of the exploding budget deficit? While one can debate the merits of government intervention vs. battling that deficit, we know the president and his team are not letting the economically disenfranchised suffer purely for reasons of economic orthodoxy. We know because there are no moves to do anything about the deficit either, other than some not terribly believable statements at the recent G20 Summit by the president that he’d hold the rest of the world to their word that they address deficit problems. In fact, credible rumors have it that Peter Orszag left in part because he did not get a warm fuzzy feeling from the president that he was going to do anything about deficit reduction any time soon.
On energy, we had a White House meeting with congressional leaders this week that featured the passionate leader of the Senate on these issue, John Kerry, offering to compound past compromises with future ones and observations by participants that despite the president’s statements regarding wanting a price for carbon there was no real belief he was going to go to bat for anything on this front prior to the election.
On Afghanistan, following the musical chairs at HQ, we returned to the doubletalk about deadlines that aren’t deadlines and exits that aren’t exits and commitments that aren’t really sustainable commitments?
Why? Effectively because the bumper stickers for the fall have already been printed, the commercials are running, the canned, superficial narratives determined and attentions have shifted away from policy to politics. The Dem leadership figures they’ll be lucky to hold on to a margin of 10 seats in the House and four in the Senate, and they will have to fight hard for that. Once Elena Kagan becomes Justice Kagan, there is a Senate vote on financial reform and a bit of a charade on some energy initiative (which is just a place holder to kick the process into conference where the real work will be done on a bill that might have a slim chance of passage during a possible lame duck session … but only a slim one) … once that’s done, then it’s off to the vacation and then a fall of campaigning.
Obama once said that he’d rather be a one-term president, tackle the tough problems and then move on if the political cost was too high. Well, of all the little white lies of his campaign that one has proven … predictably … to be the biggest. He and his team are not the first to observe that the only way to wield power is to have it … and hold on to it. And so it is predictable that one minute past midnight on election night of this year, their attention and the attention of their potential rivals, their parties and the press will turn to the 2012 election. And everything that will or will not be done in the Congress and in Washington at large in 2011 and 2012 will be oriented toward positioning for that election. With tight margins on the Hill and an overabundance of political caution at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it is likely that precious little will get done in those years other than fighting fires and going through the motions. Sadly America will suffer the consequences of having a political class that is more concerned with scoring on the other side than on doing so on behalf of their constituents.
But what might we expect in 2013 if Obama wins? All the intelligence of Obama plus four years of experience he didn’t have when he started. An experienced team and most importantly, a focus on legacy that might drive him to think bigger … and historically often drives presidents to be more creative and effective on the foreign policy front. Obama was a formidable candidate and has been an earnest first-term president. But relieved of concern about his own reelection and fueled by his great reserves of ambition, he could be a great second termer.
Admittedly, this is looking for a silver lining in the face of great frustration that America’s leadership has "gone fishing" at a time of real leadership and bold ideas and actions are most needed. But the alternative is depression on the eve of America’s birthday (which depression has in my case been compounded by Brazil’s devastating defeat at the hands … er, feet …of the Dutch). So I will look forward to Obama 2.0 … and while I’m at it, perhaps I’ll start a little movement here to consider and embrace that cornerstone of Mexican politics: the sexenio … one six year term which produces presidents with time enough to work and no burden of concerns about re-election.