The end of the domestic presidency?

The end of the domestic presidency?

As President Obama spoke before the U.N. General Assembly today, a new Gallup poll showed an American public far more trusting of their government on international rather than domestic affairs. 

Gallup’s annual Governance survey finds 57% of Americans expressing a great deal or fair amount of trust in the U.S. government to handle international problems. That is down from 62% a year ago, but remains higher than the percentage trusting Washington to handle domestic problems, now at a record-low 46%.

In some sense, this result is a very strange one during the bloodiest year of an unpopular, decade-long war. Especially considering that this administration actively decided to send more troops to Afghanistan — however reluctantly — while the economy was in sorry shape before Obama came into office. 

But the polls may say less about the government’s performance than where the country’s attention and priorities right now. It’s likely that the public gives the government decent marks on foreign policy simply because they haven’t been paying very close attention to it.

Given the president that Americans’ elected nearly two years ago, it’s remarkable that foreign policy today seems too peripheral to the national conversation. Obama first distinguished himself from frontrunner Hillary Clinton because of his unwavering opposition to the war in Iraq and made restoring America’s image in the world a major theme of his campaign, going so far as to hold a de facto campaign rally in Berlin at the height of the campaign. 

As James Traub wrote last March, while most presidents are elected for their domestic plans but remembered for their handling of foreign policy crises, Obama — at least in the first half of his term — has often seemed like an international president forced by circumstances to focus on domestic priorities:

When the White House announced last week that Obama would postpone a planned trip to Asia to lobby for his health-care legislation, it confirmed that foreign policy would take a back seat to America’s grave domestic and political problems. The economic crisis, of course, had radically reshaped Obama’s scale of priorities long before he assumed office; foreign affairs took up less than a quarter of his inaugural address. And then Republican intractability sent the debate over health-care reform into one sudden-death overtime after another. The world beyond America’s borders is of course no less salient, and no less threatening, than ever; but Americans are looking at it through the wrong end of the binoculars. 

But with the Democratic majority in Congress likely to dwindle or even disappear in November, I wonder if foreign policy might play a larger role in the second half of this term (or at least what’s left of it until the presidential election cycle overtakes events in 2011). As Peter Feaver has pointed out, there’s less daylight between the White House and Congressional republicans on national security issues than on economic or domestic policy. And in any case, the president has far more leeway to act without congressional cooperation on foreign policy.

With major domestic initiatives likely stalled for the foreseeable future by an increasingly confident GOP, could we see a shift toward a more foreign policy-focused presidency? Lord knows there are plenty of neglected areas, from trade to Latin America to development policy (which Obama took on in another speech yesterday) that could benefit from some high-level attention, not to mention Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, the Mideast talks and climate change.

Obama’s speech today didn’t offer many hints of a new direction, though at least Indonesia’s finally getting that visit it’s been waiting for.