American Watch

Lame-duck Obama to concentrate on foreign affairs

George Friedman on end of Obama presidency

The recent midterm elections in the USA have rendered Barack Obama’s presidency a ‘failed’ one. Like ‘failed’ presidencies before, Obama is likely to concentrate on foreign policy in the last two years of his term.

This is the conclusion of George Friedman, chairman of the company Stratfor Global Intelligence in an analysis of the final phase of the Obama presidency.

It is a phase similar to those of several other US presidents since World War II, ending in “what we call a state of failure”, Friedman writes and adds: “This is not a judgment on his presidency so much as on the political configuration within it and surrounding it.”

Under this situation the domestic political affairs of America are likely to have a particular effect on international relations.

Congress and the president are in gridlock, a situation in which even presidents as popular as Dwight Eisenhower have found themselves. The problem occurs when there is not only an institutional split, but also a shift in underlying public opinion against the president.

Analysing a president's strength

Friedman assumes that about 40% of the electorate is committed to each of the two parties, 20% is uncommitted, with half of those indifferent to politics, and the other half genuinely interested but undecided.

As long as a president is fighting for the centre, his ability to govern remains intact. When his popularity rating falls substantially below 40% and remains there for an extended period of time, the dynamics of politics shift. The president is fighting to hold on to his own supporters – and he is failing to do so. That is when it becomes a failed presidency – particularly when Congress is in the hands of the opposition.

Historically, when the president's popularity rating dips to about 37%, his position becomes unrecoverable. This is what happened to George W. Bush in 2006, Richard Nixon in 1974 and to Lyndon Johnson in 1967 during the Vietnam War.

It also happened to Harry Truman in 1951, primarily because of the Korean War, and to Herbert Hoover before World War II because of the Great Depression.

Truman, enormously unpopular and unable to run for another term, is now widely regarded as one of the finest presidents the United States has had. Nixon, on the other hand, has never recovered. In short, legacy comes into play.

Obama's presidency

Of the five failed presidencies mentioned, one failed over scandal, one over the economy and three over wars – Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. Obama's case is less clear. The 40% who gravitated to the opposition opposed him for a host of reasons and he lost the centre for complex reasons.

Looking at the timing of his decline, the only intruding event that might have had that impact was the rise of the Islamic State and a sense, even in his own party, that he did not have an effective response to it.

Obama appears to have fallen into the political abyss because after six years he owned the war and appeared to have no grip on it.

Failure extends to domestic policy as well. The problem is that given the president's lack of popularity – and the fact that the presidency, all of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate will be up for re-election in two years – the president's allies in Congress are not as willing to be held responsible for upholding his vetoes.

Acting within constraints

In each of the failed presidencies, the president retained the ability to act, but was constrained by the twin threats of an opposition-controlled Congress and his own party's unwillingness to align with him.

At the same time, certain foreign diplomatic initiatives can continue. Nixon initiated negotiations between Egypt and Israel that culminated under Carter's administration, in the Camp David Accords. Truman tried to open negotiations with China, and the initiative's failure had little to do with opposition to a negotiated settlement in Korea.

Obama has few domestic options. Whatever he tries, Congress can cut funding, and if the act is vetoed, the president puts Congressional Democrats in mortal danger.

The place where he can act – and this is likely the place Obama is least comfortable acting – is in foreign policy. There, limited deployment of troops and diplomatic initiatives are possible.

Obama's general strategy is to withdraw from existing conflicts in the Middle East and contain and limit Russian actions in Ukraine.

But the US’s opponent is aware that the sitting president is no longer in control of Washington, that he has a specific termination date and that the more unpopular things he does, the more likely his successor is to repudiate them.

Therefore, in the China-North Korea model, the assumption is that continuing the conflict and negotiating with the successor president is rational. In the same sense, Iran chose to wait for the election of Ronald Reagan rather than deal with Jimmy Carter (who was not a failed president).

This model depends on the opponent having the resources and the political will to continue the conflict in order to bargain with the president's successor, and assumes that the successor will be more malleable.

The failed president frequently tries to entice negotiation by increasing the military pressure on the enemy. Truman, Johnson and George W. Bush all took this path while seeking to end their wars. In no case did it work, but politically they had little to lose by trying.

Therefore, if historical patterns hold:

• Obama will proceed slowly with ineffective increased military operations in Syria and Iraq, while raising non-military pressure on Russia, or potentially initiating some low-level military activities in Ukraine. These actions, designed to achieve a rapid negotiating process, will not achieve it; and

• The presidency will shift to the other party, as it did with Truman, Johnson and George W. Bush – the Republicans will likely retake the presidency.

The period of a failed presidency is therefore not a quiet time, with the president actively trying to save his legacy in the face of enormous domestic weakness. Other countries, particularly adversaries, avoid making deals, preferring to deal with the next president.

Adversaries then use military and political oppositions abroad to influence the next US presidential campaign in their own interests.

Obama will engage in limited domestic politics, under heavy pressure from Congressional Democrats, confining himself to one or two things.

His major activity will be coping with Syria, Iraq and Russia, both because of crises and the desire for a legacy. The last two years of a failed presidency are mostly about foreign policy and are not very pleasant to watch.

(This is a summary of Friedman’s article "On Obama and the Nature of Failed Presidencies”, which can be read here)

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