Barack Obama

Obama's agenda abroad

Andrew Hammond says Obama, like second-term presidents before him who faced deadlock on issues at home, could turn his focus outwards

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 12:56am

US President Barack Obama's victory over Mitt Romney is a landmark moment in US politics. He is only the second Democratic president to win re-election since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, doing so despite sluggish economic growth and comparatively high unemployment.

Yet prospects for Obama securing major new domestic policy success are not high. His narrower margin of victory than in 2008 gives him a weaker electoral mandate. Moreover, Republicans have maintained their firm grip on the House of Representatives, and four more years of polarisation and gridlock in Washington can be expected. This, and several other factors, are likely to encourage Obama, like several other second-term presidents in the post-war period, to focus on foreign policy.

Obama may still achieve some domestic policy success, possibly a long-term federal budgetary "grand bargain" with Congress. However, many post-war re-elected presidents have found it difficult to acquire momentum behind legislative measures. In part, this is because the party of re-elected presidents often holds a weaker position in Congress. Thus Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, and Bill Clinton in 1996 were re-elected alongside Congresses controlled by their partisan opponents.

Another factor is turnover of key personnel. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have said they will not serve in Obama's second term. More will follow.

Two other issues have undercut the productiveness of second-term presidencies. First, re-elected administrations have often been affected by scandals in recent decades: Watergate ended the Nixon administration in 1974, Iran-Contra badly damaged the Reagan White House, and the Lewinsky scandal led to Clinton being impeached in 1998.

It remains to be seen if any major scandals will affect the Obama administration. Some Republicans are already pressurising Obama on what they perceive as his team's "cover-up" of the events surrounding the killing of four US citizens in Libya, including the US ambassador, in September.

Even if Obama and his administration escape significant scandal, he will not be able to avoid the "lame-duck" factor; the focus will inevitably shift, particularly after the 2014 congressional elections when the 2016 presidential campaign kicks into gear.

This all means Obama is likely to place increasing emphasis on foreign policy. It could become a strong point of focus, almost immediately, if Israel ups the ante with Iran on the latter's nuclear programme.

The probable stress on foreign policy will be reinforced by a desire to establish a significant legacy. In particular, following withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the intended drawdown in Afghanistan, the president will seek to continue his reorientation of US foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific and other increasingly strategic, high-growth markets through initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Key threats on the horizon to realising this reorientation of policy include the possibility of further attacks on the US from al-Qaeda, or a major upsurge of Middle East tension. But they would only reinforce Obama's probable focus on foreign policy.

Andrew Hammond is an associate partner at ReputationInc. He was a former special adviser in the government of Tony Blair and a geopolitics consultant at Oxford Analytica