Obama's Dilemma: U.S. Foreign Policy and Electoral Realities
By George Friedman
STRATFOR does not normally involve itself in domestic American politics. Our focus is on international affairs, and American politics, like politics everywhere, is a passionate business. The vilification from all sides that follows any mention we make of American politics is both inevitable and unpleasant. Nevertheless, it's our job to chronicle the unfolding of the international system, and the fact that the United States is moving deeply into an election cycle will affect American international behavior and therefore the international system.
The United States remains the center of gravity of the international system. The sheer size of its economy (regardless of its growth rate) and the power of its military (regardless of its current problems) make the United States unique. Even more important, no single leader of the world is as significant, for good or bad, as the American president. That makes the American presidency, in its broadest sense, a matter that cannot be ignored in studying the international system.
The American system was designed to be a phased process. By separating the selection of the legislature from the selection of the president, the founders created a system that did not allow for sudden shifts in personnel. Unlike parliamentary systems, in which the legislature and the leadership are intimately linked, the institutional and temporal uncoupling of the system in the United States was intended to control the passing passions by leaving about two-thirds of the U.S. Senate unchanged even in a presidential election year, which always coincides with the election of the House of Representatives. Coupled with senatorial rules, this makes it difficult for the president to govern on domestic affairs. Changes in the ideological tenor of the system are years in coming, and when they come they stay a long time. Mostly, however, the system is in gridlock. Thomas Jefferson said that a government that governs least is the best. The United States has a vast government that rests on a system in which significant change is not impossible but which demands a level of consensus over a period of time that rarely exists.
This is particularly true in domestic politics, where the complexity is compounded by the uncertainty of the legislative branch. Consider that the health-care legislation passed through major compromise is still in doubt, pending court rulings that thus far have been contradictory. All of this would have delighted the founders if not the constantly trapped presidents, who frequently shrug off their limits in the domestic arena in favor of action in the international realm, where their freedom to maneuver is much greater, as the founders intended.
The Burden of the Past
The point of this is that all U.S. presidents live within the framework in which Barack Obama is now operating. First, no president begins with a clean slate. All begin with the unfinished work of the prior administration. Thus, George W. Bush began his presidency with an al Qaeda whose planning and implementation for 9/11 was already well under way. Some of the al Qaeda operatives who would die in the attack were already in the country. So, like all of his predecessors, Obama assumed the presidency with his agenda already laid out.
Obama had a unique set of problems. The first was his agenda, which focused on ending the Iraq War and reversing social policies in place since Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. By the time Obama entered office, the process of withdrawal from Iraq was under way, which gave him the option of shifting the terminal date. The historic reversal that he wanted to execute, starting with health-care reform, confronted the realities of September 2008 and the American financial crisis. His Iraq policy was in place by Inauguration Day while his social programs were colliding with the financial crisis.
Obama's campaign was about more than particular policies. He ran on a platform that famously promised change and hope. His tremendous political achievement was in framing those concepts in such a way that they were interpreted by voters to mean precisely what they wanted them to mean without committing Obama to specific policies. To the anti-war faction it meant that the wars would end. To those concerned about unilateralism it meant that unilateralism would be replaced by multilateralism. To those worried about growing inequality it meant that he would end inequality. To those concerned about industrial jobs going overseas it meant that those jobs would stay in the United States. To those who hated Guantanamo it meant that Guantanamo would be closed.
Obama created a coalition whose expectations of what Obama would do were shaped by them and projected on Obama. In fact, Obama never quite said what his supporters thought he said. His supporters thought they heard that he was anti-war. He never said that. He simply said that he opposed Iraq and thought Afghanistan should be waged. His strategy was to allow his followers to believe what they wanted so long as they voted for him, and they obliged. Now, this is not unique to Obama. It is how presidents get elected. What was unique was how well he did it and the problems it caused once he became president.
It must first be remembered that, contrary to the excitement of the time and faulty memories today, Obama did not win an overwhelming victory. About 47 percent of the public voted for someone other than Obama. It was certainly a solid victory, but it was neither a landslide nor a mandate for his programs. But the excitement generated by his victory created the sense of victory that his numbers didn't support.
Another problem was that he had no programmatic preparation for the reality he faced. September 2008 changed everything in the sense that it created financial and economic realities that ran counter to the policies he envisioned. He shaped those policies during the primaries and after the convention, and they were based on assumptions that were no longer true after September 2008. Indeed, it could be argued that he was elected because of September 2008. Prior to the meltdown, John McCain had a small lead over Obama, who took over the lead only after the meltdown. Given that the crisis emerged on the Republicans' watch, this made perfect sense. But shifting policy priorities was hard because of political commitments and inertia and perhaps because the extremities of the crisis were not fully appreciated.
Obama's economic policies did not differ wildly from Bush's — indeed, many of the key figures had served in the Federal Reserve and elsewhere during the Bush administration. The Bush administration's solution was to print and insert money into financial institutions in order to stabilize the system. By the time Obama came into power, it was clear to his team that the amount of inserted money was insufficient and had to be increased. In addition, in order to sustain the economy, the policy that had been in place during the Bush years of maintaining low interest rates through monetary easing was extended and intensified. To a great extent, the Obama years have been the Bush years extended to their logical conclusion. Whether Bush would have gone for the stimulus package is not clear, but it is conceivable that he would have.
Obama essentially pursued the Bush strategy of stabilizing the banks in the belief that a stable banking system was indispensible and would in itself stimulate the economy by creating liquidity. Whether it did or it didn't, the strategy created the beginnings of Obama's political problem. He drew substantial support from populists on the left and suspicion from populists on the right. The latter, already hostile to Bush's policies, coalesced into the Tea Party. But this was not Obama's biggest problem. It was that his policies, which both seemed to favor the financial elite and were at odds with what Democratic populists believed the president stood for, weakened his support from the left. The division between what he actually said and what his supporters thought they heard him say began to widen. While the health-care battle solidified his opposition among those who would oppose him anyway, his continuing response to the financial crisis both solidified opposition among Republicans and weakened support among Democrats.
A Foreign Policy Problem
This was coupled with his foreign policy problem. Among Democrats, the anti-war faction was a significant bloc. Most Democrats did not support Obama with anti-war reasons as their primary motivator, but enough did make this the priority issue that he could not win if he lost this bloc. This bloc believed two things. The first was that the war in Iraq was unjustified and harmful and the second was that it emerged from an administration that was singularly insensitive to the world at large and to the European alliance in particular. They supported Obama because they assumed not only that he would end wars — as well as stop torture and imprisonment without trial — but that he would also re-found American foreign policy on new principles.
Obama's decision to dramatically increase forces in Afghanistan while merely modifying the Bush administration's timeline for withdrawing from Iraq caused unease within the Democratic Party. But two steps that Bush took held his position. First, one of the first things Obama did after he became president was to reach out to the Europeans. It was expected that this would increase European support for U.S. foreign policy. The Europeans, of course, were enthusiastic about Obama, as the Noble Peace Prize showed. But while Obama believed that his willingness to listen to the Europeans meant they would be forthcoming with help, the Europeans believed that Obama would understand them better and not ask for help.
The relationship was no better under Obama than under Bush. It wasn't personality or ideology that mattered. It was simply that Germany, as the prime example, had different interests than the United States. This was compounded by the differing views and approaches to the global financial crisis. Whereas the Americans were still interested in Afghanistan, the Europeans considered Afghanistan a much lower priority than the financial crisis. Thus, U.S.-European relations remained frozen.
Then Obama made his speech to the Islamic world in Cairo, where his supporters heard him trying to make amends for Bush's actions and where many Muslims heard an unwillingness to break with Israel or end the wars. His supporters heard conciliation, the Islamic world heard inflexibility.
The European response to Obama the president as opposed to Obama the candidate running against George Bush slowly reverberated among his supporters. Not only had he failed to end the wars, he doubled down and surged forces into Afghanistan. And the continued hostility toward the United States from the Islamic world reverberated among those on the Democratic left who were concerned with such matters. Add to that the failure to close Guantanamo and a range of other issues concerning the war on terror and support for Obama crumbled.
A Domestic Policy Focus
His primary victory, health-care reform, was the foundation of an edifice that was never built. Indeed, the reform bill is caught in the courts, and its future is as uncertain as it was when the bill was caught in Congress. The Republicans, as expected, agree on nothing other than Obama's defeat. The Democrats will support him; the question is how enthusiastic that support will be.
Obama's support now stands at 41 percent. The failure point for a president's second term lurks around 35 percent. It is hard to come back from there. Obama is not there yet. The loss of another six points would come from his Democratic base (which is why 35 is the failure point; when you lose a chunk of your own base, you are in deep trouble). At this point, however, the president is far less interested in foreign policy than he is in holding his base together and retaking the middle. He did not win by a large enough margin to be able to lose any of his core constituencies. He may hope that his Republican challenger will alienate the center, but he can't count on that. He has to capture his center and hold his left.
That means he must first focus on domestic policy. That is where the public is focused. Even the Afghan war and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq are not touching nerves in the center. His problem is twofold. First, it is not clear that he can get anything past Congress. He can then argue that this is Congress' fault, but the Republicans can run against Congress as well. Second, it is not clear what he would propose. The Republican right can't be redeemed, but what can Obama propose that will please the Democratic core and hold the center? The Democratic core wants taxes. The center doesn't oppose taxes (it is merely uneasy about them), but it is extremely sensitive about having the taxes eaten up by new spending — something the Democratic left supports. Obama is trapped between two groups he must have that view the world differently enough that bridging the gap is impossible.
The founders gave the United States a government that, no matter how large it gets, can't act on domestic policy without a powerful consensus. Today there is none, and therefore there can't be action. Foreign policy isn't currently resonating with the American public, so any daring initiatives in that arena will likely fail to achieve the desired domestic political end. Obama has to hold together a coalition that is inherently fragmented by many different understandings of what his presidency is about. This coalition has weakened substantially. Obama's attention must be on holding it together. He cannot resurrect the foreign policy part of it at this point. He must bet on the fact that the coalition has nowhere else to go. What he must focus on is domestic policy crafted to hold his base and center together long enough to win the election.
The world, therefore, is facing at least 14 months with the United States being at best reactive and at worst non-responsive to events. Obama has never been a foreign policy president; events and proclivity (I suspect) have always drawn him to domestic matters. But between now and the election, the political configuration of the United States and the dynamics of his presidency will force him away from foreign policy.
This at a time when the Persian Gulf is coming to terms with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the power of Iran, when Palestinians and Israelis are facing another crisis over U.N. recognition, when the future of Europe is unknown, when North Africa is unstable and Syria is in crisis and when U.S. forces continue to fight in Afghanistan. All of this creates opportunities for countries to build realities that may not be in the best interests of the United States in the long run. There is a period of at least 14 months for regional powers to act with confidence without being too concerned about the United States.
The point of this analysis is to try to show the dynamics that have led the United States to this position, and to sketch the international landscape in broad strokes. The U.S. president will not be deeply engaged in the world for more than a year. Thus, he will have to cope with events pressed on him. He may undertake initiatives, such as trying to revive the Middle East peace process, but such moves would have large political components that would make it difficult to cope with realities on the ground. The rest of the world knows this, of course. The question is whether and how they take advantage of it.