For all their inflamed partisan passions and heated rhetoric, the 2010 midterm elections were conducted in a virtual foreign policy vacuum. In stark contrast to every election since 2002, national security played almost no role in either the Republican or Democratic national campaigns, with both parties preferring to argue about domestic issues such as the economy, unemployment, and government spending. The Republicans won soundly, taking control of the House of Representatives, and narrowing the Democratic majority in the Senate.
But the domestic focus of this election means the new Republican representatives and senators will come to power with a fundamentally domestic mandate. It also exacerbates certain tendencies in the structure of American electoral politics. With the exception of the relevant committee members, most representatives and senators are not preoccupied with big-picture foreign policy questions, focusing instead on the parochial interests of their particular state or district. These interests can affect foreign policy insofar as an elected official's constituency includes diaspora communities, defense industries, military bases, or particular industrial and agricultural sectors. But though often vocal in defense of their single-issue prerogatives, these constituencies rarely offer up a grand critique of the president's foreign policy choices.
As the executive branch conducts most national security policy without direct legislative intervention, President Barack Obama doesn't need the House of Representatives to pursue the bulk of his foreign policy agenda. Indeed, some have argued that Obama will turn his attention to foreign policy in the second half of his term, since moving major domestic legislation through Congress will no longer be possible. However, even with regard to his national security agenda, Obama will face several congressional hurdles during the next two years. Although the direct effects of the GOP victories on U.S. policy will be limited, they will still be important. In the Senate, the Democrats' reduced majority jeopardizes the ratification of New START, as well as the repeal of DADT. It bears noting, too, that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is expected to retire in the next year. Having served under President George W. Bush, Gates entered the Obama administration as a consensus bipartisan choice. But he leaves behind a complicated legacy: His successor will likely carry considerably less gravitas, and may face confirmation difficulties in the newly tightened U.S. Senate. Whoever succeeds Adm. Michael Mullen as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will also require Senate approval, although the new candidate will probably undergo less scrutiny than Gates' replacement.