The Realist Prism: After a ‘Lost Year,’ Can Obama Regain Momentum?

The Realist Prism: After a ‘Lost Year,’ Can Obama Regain Momentum?

Many commentators have described 2013 as a “lost year” for the Obama administration. The enthusiasm generated by the second inaugural quickly dissipated in continued stalemates with Congress, culminating in the government shutdown in October. No major pieces of legislation were passed, nor did the United States spearhead new international initiatives. Some of this can be attributed to the famed “second-term curse.” As I noted in these pages after the president’s re-election, “Every second-term president over the past 30 years—Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—overestimated the amount of political capital their re-election generated, and each was also distracted by scandals that further limited their freedom of action.” The past year, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza summed up, “opened with great promise and closed with equally great disappointment.”

In March 2012, President Barack Obama was caught on an open microphone promising then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev “more flexibility” after the presidential election. Indeed, during the 2012 campaign, U.S. foreign policy went into its traditional holding pattern. The expectation was that after the November elections, big-picture policymaking would resume, and that Washington would be prepared to make hard decisions. For the most part, however, progress was stymied by the domestic political deadlock. Obama’s position on the global stage was undercut by his abrupt volte-face on Syria and the cancelation of his trip to Asia on account of the government shutdown, in essence ceding primacy of place to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. A particularly troubling sign has been Congress’ growing willingness to put impediments on the president’s freedom of action, ranging from a clear signal that the administration would not get a blank check to commit U.S. military forces to any mission in Syria to consideration of additional sanctions against Iran at a time when talks are underway to try to resolve the nuclear issue. If Obama thought he would have more flexibility after the elections, he was mistaken.

Spring 2014, then, could be a time of repair and renewal for U.S. foreign policy. Obama will undertake his long-delayed major trip to Asia—now expected to take place in April—while his secretary of state continues with diplomatic efforts to make breakthroughs in the Middle East. If the U.S. can show progress toward reaching a definitive settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue as well as finalizing the parameters of the two massive trade agreements under discussion—the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the envisioned U.S.-European Union free trade zone—it will go a long way in revising the narrative of U.S. decline.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.

More World Politics Review