Second-term presidents who find their ability to shape domestic affairs limited by congressional constraints often view foreign policy as the arena in which they can post some successes.
Ronald Reagan had his second-term breakthrough with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s general secretary. Bill Clinton had the U.S. lead its NATO allies into taking military action against the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic. Much further back in time, Woodrow Wilson successfully negotiated the League of Nations Treaty (though he couldn’t win Senate passage for it).
But in the sixth year of his presidency, foreign policy appears to be giving President Obama more fits than achievements.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has flouted Obama’s warnings against Moscow recognizing Ukraine’s Crimea region as sovereign or keeping Russian troops there. And that was after the president’s credibility had already taken a hit for retreating from his red-line warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
If that wasn’t enough, there was the Egyptian military’s defiance of Obama’s calls for it to respect the democratic process that led to the election of President Mohammed Morsi; the Egyptian military ousted and arrested him anyway.
That’s not to say the Obama administration hasn’t made foreign policy progress: The U.S. and its fellow U.N. Security Council members plus Germany have gotten Iran to the negotiating table again in the hope that an agreement can be reached that would further slow Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.
And Secretary of State John Kerry is also facilitating a new round of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
But there are long odds for success on the Iranian and Israeli-Palestinian fronts, which leaves Obama’s overall management of foreign policy open to criticism from many directions — including from Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.
One problem Obama faces is the expectation that a U.S. president can actually “manage” what happens elsewhere in the world. Obama may have contributed to such heightened expectations himself with his administration’s talk of a “reset” of U.S. relations with Russia, not to mention the rest of the world.
“It fits into the historic perspective in that foreign policy is not the kind of issue that is easy to control,” Julian Zelizer, Princeton University professor of history and public affairs, told It’s All Politics. “In November, it could be the kind of issue that seems to bring you praise, that seems to demonstrate how good you are as a leader.
“Then, one month later, it’s easier for events to spin out of control in a way that isn’t true of domestic policy,” Zelizer said. “Russia is a great example. It’s a country, a situation that is in many ways beyond his grasp. At this point, there are limits to what he can do and what the U.S. can do. But because of how it unfolds, it hurts him, it hurts his image. … That’s where it plays into domestic politics.”
As bad as things look now for Obama’s foreign policy agenda, he’s a far cry away from where Reagan was at a similar point in his presidency. It was the sixth year of Reagan’s presidency when the Iran-Contra scandal exploded into headlines. There were calls for Reagan’s impeachment.
But if foreign affairs threatened to overwhelm Reagan’s second term, they also helped salvage it. Gorbachev’s willingness to negotiate with Reagan helped remake the president’s foreign policy record.
That’s a lesson worth remembering amid the negative assessments of the moment.