Tick, Tock

The bombs awaiting Obama in 2010.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It would, of course, be absurd to claim that the world spits out crises to the rhythms of the U.S. political system. Every year brings its share of flare-ups large and small, from wars and coups to famines and natural disasters. But the cycles of American politics matter, not least because they constrain how a U.S. president responds to world events. If Year One is about laying out an agenda and testing a green leader, Year Two is when ambition meets reality. In Year Two, there’s no more room for excuses: The team is more or less in place; the president can no longer plead inexperience; and midterm elections loom, sharply curtailing Congress’s appetite for risk. And then, the campaign rallies and town-hall meetings of Iowa and New Hampshire are just around the corner. Year Two is usually the last, waning chance to make big things happen, a suggestion of the peril and the promise that await Barack Obama as he enters what is sure to be a tumultuous second year in the Oval Office.

In 1962, John F. Kennedy overcame a rookie mistake at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs to stare down Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis, deftly fending off calls either to escalate and risk nuclear war or capitulate.

Flash forward to 1978, when a triumphant Jimmy Carter stood before both houses of the U.S. Congress and announced what he had just achieved over 13 tension-filled days at Camp David, Maryland: an unprecedented peace agreement between two bitter Middle East rivals, Egypt and Israel. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God," Carter said, hailing a historic inflection point that he was sure would spread prosperity and harmony throughout the region. Interrupted 25 times by applause, he had little inkling then of how much his administration was already overlooking the clear signs of a different future for the Middle East, being written by riotous crowds on the streets of Tehran and Tabriz. As with so many American presidents, Carter’s year two — from his Nobel moment at Camp David to the missed signals of the coming Iranian Revolution — ended up defining his legacy.

In 1990, George H.W. Bush managed the disintegration of the Soviet Union with aplomb and assembled a grand global coalition to confront Saddam Hussein, but was slow to respond to an economic downturn and closed his eyes as the conflict in the Balkans flared. Bill Clinton had finally spurred NATO to act in Bosnia by 1994, but his paralysis as Rwandans hacked each other to pieces haunts him even now — not to mention a domestic political performance so uneven, and the flop of his historic health care bill so massive, that Republicans won Congress that fall for the first time in 40 years. Most recently, of course, 2002 was the year George W. Bush declared premature victory in Afghanistan and began actively preparing to invade Iraq, legacy-sealing decisions if ever there were ones.

For this president, the crises of Year Two may well come from the same daunting set of issues he faced on inauguration day: a fragile world economy, a failing war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a recalcitrant Iran, Israeli and Palestinian leaders who can’t or won’t make peace, a Somalia radiating chaos and lawlessness, an Iraq that may or may not be ready to handle its own security.

But it’s just as likely that problems not already on the front page will suddenly blow up to confound Obama. In 2010, among these might be a double-dip recession brought on by high oil prices, a renewed civil war in genocide-plagued Sudan, or perhaps the implosion of Yemen into an al Qaeda haven. Or what about a succession crisis in Egypt, the teetering U.S. ally in the world’s most volatile neighborhood, or the collapse of the global trading system, or any number of other blips off the range of presidential radar?

For all the talk of American decline, the world will still be looking to Washington for leadership when these ticking bombs explode. Time to suit up, Barack.

Read on:

  • R.I.P., WTO: Why 2010 could mark the death of the global trade system as we know it. By Paul Blustein
  • After Pharaoh: Hosni Mubarak’s death — or worse, his refusal to give up power — could throw the largest country in the Arab world into chaos. By Issandr Amrani
  • Welcome to Qaedastan: Yemen’s coming explosion will make today’s problems look tame. By Gregory Johnsen
  • Africa’s New Horror: South Sudan’s declaration of independence could thrust the country back into a bloody civil war. By J. Peter Pham
  • Crimea and Punishment: On the eve of Ukraine’s presidential election, a resurgent Russia may use the disputed territory of the Crimea to reassert its hegemony over its eastern neighbor. By Anders Åslund
  • A Double Dip: Rising oil prices could drive the global economy into another recession. By Steven Kopits