In a year’s time, Americans will be deciding if they are ready to give President Obama another term in the White House. The present trends do not favor Obama but the Republicans have not found a good candidate yet. Whatever happens, 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 examining the international system.
All US 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 underway. 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 healthcare 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.
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 US 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, US-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.
The world, therefore, is facing at least 14 months with the United States being at best reactive and at worse 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 US withdrawal from Iraq and the power of Iran, when Palestinians and Israelis are facing another crisis over UN recognition, when the future of Europe is unknown, when North Africa is unstable and Syria is in crisis and when US 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 US 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.
In a year’s time, Americans will be deciding if they are ready to give President Obama another term in the White House. The present trends do not favor Obama but the Republicans have not found a good candidate yet. Whatever happens, 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 examining the international system.