Political leaders’ lofty agendas are invariably overtaken by political reality. It is one thing to know the policies and programs you want to implement; it is quite another to bring them to fruition. This is particularly true during a president’s first term, both domestically and, increasingly, in terms of foreign policy.
Most presidents enter the White House with a strong sense of their domestic policy priorities. While they recognize they will be subject to political realities and legislative jockeying, presidents believe they can achieve their goals. Many presidents do not truly comprehend how international exigencies and crises will affect their heartfelt desires and domestic agenda. The amount of time that foreign relations demands do not allow for as much focus on the home front as many presidents would prefer.
In some respects, Barack Obama’s accomplishments and clear domestic focus in his first year were unusual for a modern president, though events were largely driven by the all-consuming financial crisis. Unlike FDR in the ’30s, who had relatively few dramatic foreign distractions on his plate during the first New Deal, Obama inherited a wide range of international challenges that he needed to address simultaneously with his attack on the economic recession. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were only the most obvious of these issues.
Given those necessary distractions, it is remarkable that this administration succeeded in pushing the health care legislation as far as it did during year one. And given the events that now have developed on the international front merely since Congress went home on Christmas Eve, the White House and the Democratic leadership may rue the fact that they did not get a final health bill pushed through while they had the momentum. Dramatically renewed fears of terrorism and lack of faith in our intelligence-gathering operations may push the ultimate resolution of the health-care debate on to a slower track — although some bill should become law by spring.
There is another side to the interaction between foreign and domestic policies. When matters are going well domestically, presidents can usually engage in foreign policy enterprises and ventures with minimal costs. Conversely, when presidents are successful in foreign policy moves, failures or mistakes in domestic policies tend to be quickly forgiven.
At the same time, presidents learn that a successfully engaged foreign policy produces far more positive political clout for a president than most bills enacted into law. If the shift in tactics in Afghanistan succeeds in a major victory against Al Qaida or the capture of Osama bin Laden, then it will dwarf any legislative accomplishment that Obama might achieve in Congress — even health care.
Foreign policy failures, such as the recent murder of seven CIA agents in Afghanistan at the hands of a Jordanian double agent and suicide bomber, only intensify public angst concerning the Obama administration’s new strategy to win the war on terrorism by deploying an additional 30,000 U.S. troops there. Similarly, the apprehension of the failed “underwear” bomber on Christmas Day reversed years of efforts by two administrations to instill confidence in the flying public that the skies were safe.
The Middle East peacekeeping initiatives are another case in point. After appointing former Sen. George Mitchell as his chief adviser on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating track and launching other initiatives in the region, Obama was quick to appear to engage personally in the process. These well-intentioned efforts were quickly blocked by the very parties that the president was seeking to bring to the bargaining table. As he enters his second year, the president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Mitchell have once again affirmed their personal commitment to the process.
Political reality re-entered this debate, however, once again from a different vantage point. The president’s chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel, declared last week that the United States could no longer afford to invest as much time and effort into a peace process that was going nowhere fast. Speaking as one of the president’s key political advisers and an architect of the Democratic congressional landslide in 2006, Emanuel told both the Palestinians and the Israelis that while he believes that President Obama should and will stay more engaged in peace efforts in the region, politics matter. Given the Democratic Party’s genuine concern about potential significant losses in the 2010 congressional elections as well as the re-election campaign in 2012, Emanuel signaled that winning is indeed “the only thing.”
Politics constantly interferes with good intentions. International events invariably overtake domestic priorities. Now that the United States is beginning to show signs of emerging from the economic crisis, successful action on energy, financial reform, and the environment may well be held hostage to the Obama administration’s need to demonstrate an ability to successfully handle the renewed terrorism challenges.