In Obama’s second term, foreign policy looms large

A stress on foreign policy will be reinforced by a desire to establish a legacy. Previous presidents have often seen foreign policy initiatives as a key part of the legacy they wish to build.

US President Barack Obama 370 (R) (photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
US President Barack Obama 370 (R)
(photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
Barack Obama begins his second term of office on January 20 when, in a private session, he will be sworn in. Because January 20 is a Sunday, the official public inauguration will take place on January 21.
The inauguration ceremony will be a high point for the Democratic Party. Obama is just the second Democrat to be re-elected since Franklin Roosevelt more than a half century ago.
However, prospects for the president securing a string of major domestic policy success are not high, as was evidenced recently with the problems reaching even a partial deal with Congress on the “fiscal cliff.” Obama’s narrower margin of victory in 2012 than in 2008 gives him a weaker electoral mandate. Moreover, Republicans (including the significant Tea Party caucus), who were so at odds with his first-term agenda, have maintained their firm grip of the House of Representatives, and a sizable minority in the Senate.
So Washington has the clear potential for four more years of intense polarization and gridlock.
This, and several other factors, are likely to encourage Obama, like numerous other second-term presidents in the postwar period, to turn his focus toward foreign policy.
The fact that Obama’s second term, from the vantage point of domestic policy, may not be a productive one is not unusual for re-elected incumbents. During their first four years in the White House, presidents usually succeed in enacting several core priorities (as Obama did with health care and his economic stimulus package), while key items that failed to secure a critical mass of support are rarely resurrected.
To be sure, Obama will achieve some domestic policy success in the next four years, including the possibility of reaching an agreement with Congress on immigration reform. However, many re-elected presidents in the postwar era have found it difficult to acquire momentum behind an array of significant new legislative measures.
IN PART, this is because the party of re-elected presidents often hold a weaker position in Congress in second presidential terms of office. Thus, Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, and Bill Clinton in 1996 were all re-elected alongside Congresses where both the House of Representatives and Senate were controlled by their partisan opponents.
This dynamic means policy initiative in Washington – if it exists at all – can edge back to Congress.
The productiveness of second terms can also be stymied by turnover of key personnel. Following reelection success, there’s often a sizable departure of cabinet, White House and other executive branch officials.
Already, several Cabinet members, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, have made clear they will not serve in Obama’s second term. The problem for the president is that it is not always easy to recruit figures of the same status and caliber as those that leave, and, even when this happens, new staff occasionally fail to hit the ground running, and, where necessary, be confirmed by Congress.
Two other issues have undercut the productiveness of second-term presidencies. First, re-elected administrations have often been affected by scandals (although the events that trigger the scandals can happen during first terms). Thus, Watergate ended the Nixon administration in 1974, Iran-contra badly damaged the Reagan White House, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998.
It remains to be seen if any major scandals will affect the Obama administration. However, some Republicans, including Senator John McCain, are already pressing Obama on what they perceive as his team’s cover-up of the events surrounding the killing of four US citizens in Libya, including the US ambassador, in September. McCain, who was defeated by Obama in 2008, has even compared the affair to Watergate.
Even if Obama escapes scandal, he won’t be able to avoid the lame-duck factor. Since he can’t seek more than two terms, political focus will inevitably be diverted elsewhere, particularly after the 2014 congressional elections when the 2016 presidential campaign kicks into gear.
This overall domestic policy context means that Obama is likely to place increasing emphasis on foreign policy in the next four years. This is especially likely if the economic recovery builds pace in coming months.
FOREIGN POLICY could become an especially strong point of focus almost immediately if Israel ups the ante with Iran on the latter’s nuclear program. An Israeli strike, with or without the support of Washington, remains a real possibility in 2013, especially if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is re-elected on January 22. This issue, thus, has the potential to pose major headaches for Obama, and will require extremely skilled statesmanship.
A stress on foreign policy will be reinforced by a desire to establish a legacy. Previous presidents have often seen foreign policy initiatives as a key part of the legacy they wish to build; Clinton, for instance, devoted much of his second term trying to secure a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis.
A decade and a half later, with still no deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, other areas are just as key to any eventual foreign policy legacy for Obama. In particular, following the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the intended draw-down in Afghanistan, the president will seek to continue his post-9/11 reorientation of foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region and other strategic high-growth markets.
Key threats on the horizon to maintaining this reorientation of policy remain the possibility of further devastating attacks on the US homeland from al-Qaida or a major surge of tension in the Middle East, perhaps emanating from Israeli-Iranian conflict or the implosion of Syria. However, these scenarios would only reinforce Obama’s focus on foreign policy in his second term.
Andrew Hammond, an associate partner at Reputation-Inc, was a former special adviser in the government of Tony Blair and a geopolitics consultant at Oxford Analytica.