President Barack Obama now has a little less than three years left in office, and the latest political parlor game is to try and discern what shape the final tranche of his administration will take. David Remnick’s profile of Obama in the New Yorker suggests that the next 12 months or so represents the administration’s last chance to set in concrete what it hopes its lasting contributions to U.S. foreign and domestic policy will be. After that, the calendar will shift, with the dominant question becoming who will succeed Obama come January 2017.
So will the last third of Obama’s tenure in office be defined by propositions for major new initiatives, with the clear knowledge that failure is very much an option? Or will it be characterized by cautious efforts to secure a more modest legacy? And how much will the president focus on foreign affairs?
One of the most important factors in determining what the White House will do in the coming months, and perhaps even the overriding one, is the effort to secure victory for the Democrats in the November 2014 midterm elections. If the president’s party were to retain control of the Senate and retake control of the House of Representatives, Obama could finish out his second term in office under vastly different political conditions. A loss of Republican control in the House would mean an end to the seemingly endless stream of investigations that have plagued the White House since 2011. It would also offer Obama a critical opportunity to pass new budgets rather than continuing resolutions, which would allow for new programs to be codified and authorized. Finally, although there are no guarantees, a Democratic-controlled Congress might be in a position to pass new social programs and move ahead on immigration reform.
Remnick’s profile contains several anecdotes of members of the president’s political base confronting him to take action to advance his agenda. To this end, a Congress once again in friendlier hands might allow Obama to start 2015 with a raft of signature legislative items. A stronger Democratic majority in both houses would also strengthen Obama’s hand in foreign policy, because, at present, a principal source of the perception that he is weak on the world scene comes from the reality that the president’s voice in international affairs is constantly being contradicted and challenged by leading figures within the legislature. That constant tension makes it harder to trust that Obama, or his lieutenants, can deliver on any of their commitments—a perception not helped by some of the comments found in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recently published memoir that suggests that “this White House’s word means nothing.”
The question on foreign policy over the next nine months, however, is what actions are likely to advance or hinder the Democrats’ chances for victory in the fall. The default assumption is that caution will prevail, given the volte-face the administration executed on Syria last year, when it became clear that a majority of Americans opposed taking military action against Bashar Assad even after his forces used chemical weapons against rebels fighting his regime. This points to Washington, over the next several months, being quite risk averse and seeking to manage events to prevent any major upsets—a mindset that will emphasize pushing back any deadlines, and thus potential consequences, beyond the elections.
At the same time, however, a major breakthrough on the world stage could rebound to the president’s political credit at home. A comprehensive deal that “solves” the Iran nuclear imbroglio could be a major boost for Obama, validating his approach to world affairs and discrediting those who argue that only military confrontation can produce a satisfactory resolution to the Iranian nuclear stand-off—and other crises. Indeed, the administration might push for a comprehensive deal with Iran in order to contrast the success of Obama’s cautious approach to war with the failures of Republican approaches. A similar logic undergirds the current push for restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and might also serve as the basis for a U.S. diplomatic push to reduce tensions in the East and South China seas.
On the other hand, diplomacy, if spun as “concession” or “weakness,” might damage the Democrats’ electoral chances, particularly on the Iran issue, where there is enormous skepticism as to the good faith of the Islamic Republic to implement any agreement. One can already imagine the ads where a Neville Chamberlain meeting Adolf Hitler in 1938 in Munich morphs into Obama—complete with umbrella—sitting down with the ayatollahs. Democratic candidates themselves may want the Obama administration to slow down on engagement with Tehran. So the White House may press for significant progress to be made prior to the elections, in order to reinforce the message to the base that Obama is more skilled at getting U.S. objectives met through diplomacy than his predecessor did using the military instrument of power, but have the fine print of any agreement delayed until after the election results are in, thus reinforcing the tendency for caution.
But while the political side of the administration will have the midterm elections firmly in their sights, there is also the question of legacy. Assuming that, like Obama, this is the end of the political line for the vice president—Joe Biden may disagree—and the secretaries of state and defense, why not push ahead with bold initiatives that could reshape the balance of global power even if there is a short-term political cost at home? Just as liberation from the tyranny of the electoral cycle empowered George W. Bush to push for the “surge” in Iraq even over the objections of many senior military figures—albeit after the shellacking the Republicans took in the 2006 midterm election—Obama, by late summer, may determine that the Democrats cannot take back the House in 2014 and thus decide to focus less on doing what is politically expedient for the Democrats and more on on devoting his time, energy and what remains of his political capital to securing his version of the Camp David Accords that will go down in the annals of diplomacy.
Other capitals, then, should expect to hear quite mixed messages from Washington in coming months as competing imperatives jostle in the formulation of U.S. policy.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, The Realist Prism, appears every Friday.
The Realist Prism: As U.S. Midterms Approach, Expect Mixed Messages on Foreign Policy