Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Foreign policy looms large for Obama

As Obama’s second term begins, foreign policy looms large.

Following his public inauguration, Barack Obama has now begun his second term of office.  While this is a high moment for the Democratic Party (Obama is just the second Democrat to be re-elected president since Franklin Roosevelt more than a half century ago), prospects for him securing major domestic policy success in the next four years are not high.

Republicans (including the significant Tea party caucus), who were so at odds with Obama’s first-term agenda, have maintained their firm grip of the House of Representatives, and retain a sizeable minority in the Senate.  So Washington has the obvious potential for more intense polarisation 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.  This is especially likely if the economic recovery builds pace in coming months.

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 period in the White House, presidents usually succeed in enacting several core priorities (as Obama did with health care and his economic stimulus package).

In the next four years, Obama will achieve some further domestic policy success, including the possibility of 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.

The productiveness of second terms can also be stymied by turnover of key personnel.  Following re-election success, there’s a sizable departure of cabinet, White House and other executive branch officials.

Already, several key Cabinet members, including 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 calibre as those that leave and even when this happens, they can be subject to very tough confirmation hearings by Congress and fail to hit the ground running.

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, including the US ambassador, in Libya in September.

Even if Obama and his administration escape significant scandal, he won’t be able to avoid the lame-duck factor.  Since he can’t seek a third term, 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.  Foreign policy could become an especially strong point of focus almost immediately if Israel ups the ante with Iran on the latter’s nuclear programme.  An Israeli strike, with or without the support of Washington, remains a real possibility in 2013.  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 drawdown 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 north Africa, or 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 was formerly US Editor at Oxford Analytica and a special adviser in the UK government


Photo: Porchlife

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Andrew Hammond

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