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 a very challenging economic headwind of sluggish growth and comparatively high unemployment in the US.
While many Democrats are elated by Obama’s success, prospects for him securing major new domestic policy success are not very high. His narrower margin of victory than in 2008 gives him a weaker electoral mandate. Moreover, congressional Republicans, who were so at odds with the president’s first term agenda, have maintained their firm grip of the House of Representatives.
The Washington political scene thus has the potential for four more years of intense polarisation and gridlock. This and several other factors are likely to encourage Obama, like several other second-term presidents in the post-war period, to increasingly turn his focus towards foreign policy, especially if the economic recovery gains traction in the next 12 months.
The fact that Obama’s second term may not, from the vantage point of domestic policy, be a productive one is not unusual for re-elected incumbents. During their first four years in the White House, presidents usually succeed in enacting several core priorities (as Obama did with health care and his economic stimulus package), while key items that failed to secure a critical mass of support are rarely resurrected by the White House.
To be sure, Obama may still achieve some domestic policy success, including the possibility of a long-term federal budgetary ‘grand bargain’ with Congress. However, many re-elected presidents in the post-war era have found it difficult to acquire momentum behind an array of significantly new legislative measures.
In part, this is because the party of re-elected presidents, as with the Democrats now, often hold a weaker position in Congress in second presidential terms of office. Thus Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972 and Bill Clinton in 1996 were all re-elected alongside Congresses where both the House of Representatives and Senate were controlled by their partisan opponents. This dynamic means policy initiative in Washington — if it exists at all — can edge back to Congress.
Another factor that can exacerbate the exhaustion of a president’s agenda in the second term is turnover of key personnel. Following re-election success, there is often a sizeable departure of Cabinet, White House and other Executive Branch officials.
Already, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made clear they will not serve in Obama’s second term. More key personnel will follow. The problem for the president is that it is not easy to recruit figures of the same status and calibre as those that depart. Two other issues have undercut the productiveness of second term presidencies. Firstly, re-elected administrations have often been impacted by scandals in recent decades (although the events that trigger the scandals can happen during first terms). Thus, Watergate ended the Nixon administration in 1974, Iran-Contra badly damaged the Reagan White House and the Lewinsky scandal affected Clinton in 1998.
It remains to be seen if any major scandals will impact the Obama administration. However, some Republicans in Congress, including Senator John McCain, 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. McCain, who Obama beat for the presidency in 2008, has even compared the affair to Watergate.
Even if Obama and his administration escape significant scandal, he will not be able to avoid the ‘lame-duck’ factor. That is, as a president cannot seek more than two terms, political focus will inevitably refocus elsewhere in the country, particularly after the 2014 congressional elections when the 2016 presidential election campaign kicks into gear.
This overall domestic policy context means Obama is likely to place increasing emphasis on foreign policy in his next four years in the White House. This is especially likely if the economic recovery builds up pace in coming months.
Foreign policy could become an especially strong point of focus for Obama, almost immediately, if Israel ups the ante with Iran on the latter’s nuclear programme. A missile strike by Tel Aviv, with or without the support of Washington, remains a real possibility in 2013. This issue thus has the potential to pose major headaches for Obama and will require extremely skilled statesmanship, especially given his strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The probable stress by Obama on foreign policy in his second term will be reinforced by a desire to establish a significant legacy. Previous presidents have often seen foreign policy initiatives as a key part of the legacy they wish to build, including Clinton who devoted much time in his second term, trying to secure a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Almost two decades later, with a significant deal between the Israelis and Palestinians still log-jammed, other areas of the world are just as key to any eventual Obama foreign policy legacy. In particular, following withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the intended drawdown in Afghanistan, the president will seek to continue his post-9/11 re-orientation of US foreign policy towards Asia-Pacific and other increasingly strategic, high-growth markets through initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Key threats on the horizon to maintaining this re-orientation of policy remain the possibility of further devastating terrorist attacks on the US homeland from Al Qaida, or a major upsurge of tension in the Middle East, perhaps emanating from Israeli-Iranian conflict or the implosion of Syria. Should any of these scenarios arise, however, it will only reinforce Obama’s probable focus on foreign policy in his second term.
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.