A President Riding Off Into the Sunset?

Three reasons why President Obama isn't about to be a second-term foreign-policy free-ranger.


Republican candidates fared extraordinarily well in the 2014 midterm elections, giving Republicans control of both the House and Senate at the national level and executives governing 31 states of the union. It remains to be seen, however, whether the election is a repudiation of President Barack Obama’s agenda, a demonstration of how out of touch Washington elites are with the rest of our country, a thirst for more cooperation in solving the country’s many problems, an object lesson in smart new campaigning techniques, or simple evidence that more Democratic seats were up for grabs.

Irrespective of which explanation proves true, the election will have important consequences for American foreign policy. But it is unlikely to produce a flowering of foreign policy activism common for late-stage American presidencies. Don’t expect Obama to pull an Eisenhower, focusing on countering the Soviet’s space program in 1958 or President George W. Bush trying to resurrect a success in Iraq with the surge strategy in 2006. Many presidents, stymied by Congresses and diminishingly relevant to the political debates late in their terms take refuge in the wide latitude the framers gave our country’s chief executive in the conduct of foreign policy. But there are three reasons President Obama probably won’t take that route.

First, upheavals internationally and the Obama administration’s reactions to them likely contributed to the voter dissatisfaction on display in Tuesday’s election. That’s not a promising basis for redoubling effort. President Obama was expecting to trumpet ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as his major foreign policy accomplishment; but with the Middle East in flames that’s not looking like such a good outcome. In fact, just Wednesday, the president announced his intention to pursue a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to allow the campaign in Syria and Iraq to continue, with congressional approval. In Kabul, meanwhile, the commander in Afghanistan has just publicly suggested (in a Foreign Policy exclusive) that we might need to hold longer in Afghanistan than the president’s stated policy envisions. 

Dealing with the consequences of how we end our wars will be a major preoccupation of the next two years, but unlikely the welcome diversion many late-stage presidents enjoyed. Nor are other signature policies looking ripe for further progress: the reset with Russia (dead), a world without nuclear weapons (laughable), working through the United Nations (unlikely), and repudiating Bush administration war on terror policies (this White House has only doubled-down). As my Shadow Government colleague Phil Levy has ably argued, even trade is not an unmixed blessing for the president. 

The second reason the 2014 election isn’t likely to precipitate a foreign policy-centric last two years for Obama is that the issues on which the president would most like to take action without congressional approval would have enormous blow-back from Congress and affect the administration’s ability to achieve compromises on other policies. The White House is suggesting to reporters that an Iranian nuclear deal might not be submitted to Congress; but unless such a deal were a draconian roll-back of Iran’s nuclear weapons program with expansive verification (a deal, mind you, that Tehran has in no way suggested it will agree to), Congress would surely legislate against the deal. Current sanction waivers would likely be removed from existing legislation and more stringent sanctions passed with bipartisan support. It is hard to see President Obama playing hardball with executive authority and still getting any cooperation from Congress on other issues.

Third, the president may well become anxious about his legacy, and domestic policy is a likelier arena for a liberal Democratic president to want to make his mark. Moreover, this is not an administration that has excelled at execution of its policies, whether bringing the president’s signature health care legislation into being, bringing together a robust coalition to fight the Islamic State, or finding a way to close the Guantanamo prison facility. It ought to want as a priority to correct that widespread public perception. That might well lead to a more domestic policy focus for President Obama’s final two years in office.

What we are likelier to see in foreign policy than presidential activism is Congress pushing the executive. A Republican Congress may well take the bit in its teeth and attempt to run American foreign policy from Capitol Hill, as it tried to run spending policy after the 2010 midterm elections. This would be especially likely if Sen. Ted Cruz and other firebrands gain sway in the GOP caucus, bringing their take-it-or-leave-it approach from the government shut down, an emphasis on American moral righteousness, and disapproval of the nation building that is a central element of dealing with threats emerging from weak and failing states. Republican leaders in both the House and Senate have some breathing room, though, given the size of Republican caucuses after this election. They may also have opportunities to pick up support across the aisle that reduce the influence of libertarian or the most conservative parts of the Republican tent, meaning we’d see a more centrist foreign policy with broader support, and may see a 2016 incentive to do so (both to set up Republican presidential candidates in 2016 and burnish the Republican brand as a party that can govern).

More likely would be congressional proffering of opportunities to the president that have economic benefits and that the Democratic party has been divided over: fast-track trade negotiating authority, an updated AUMF, progress on North American energy integration. That approach would give Obama opportunities for major foreign policy successes, but also confront him with difficult political choices — the happiest outcome for Republican partisans.

At the end of the day, though, the best American foreign policy is a vibrant United States. Reaching agreements that put entitlement programs on a sustainable footing and eliminate our national debt would do more for America’s image in the world than any foreign policy involvement or disengagement President Obama might undertake. It would also be the best thing he could do to strengthen our national security and the long-term sustainability of American power in the international order.

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