Obama’s support now stands at 41 percent. The failure point for a president’s second term lurks around 35 percent. It is hard to come back from there. Obama is not there yet. The loss of another six points would come from his Democratic base (which is why 35 is the failure point; when you lose a chunk of your own base, you are in deep trouble). At this point, however, the president is far less interested in foreign policy than he is in holding his base together and retaking the middle. He did not win by a large enough margin to be able to lose any of his core constituencies. He may hope that his Republican challenger will alienate the center, but he can’t count on that. He has to capture his center and hold his left.
That means he must first focus on domestic policy. That is where the public is focused. Even the Afghan war and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq are not touching nerves in the center. His problem is twofold. First, it is not clear that he can get anything past Congress. He can then argue that this is Congress’ fault, but the Republicans can run against Congress as well. Second, it is not clear what he would propose. The Republican right can’t be redeemed, but what can Obama propose that will please the Democratic core and hold the center? The Democratic core wants taxes. The center doesn’t oppose taxes (it is merely uneasy about them), but it is extremely sensitive about having the taxes eaten up by new spending – something the Democratic left supports. Obama is trapped between two groups he must have that view the world differently enough that bridging the gap is impossible.
The founders gave the United States a government that, no matter how large it gets, can’t act on domestic policy without a powerful consensus. Today there is none, and therefore there can’t be action. Foreign policy isn’t currently resonating with the American public, so any daring initiatives in that arena will likely fail to achieve the desired domestic political end. Obama has to hold together a coalition that is inherently fragmented by many different understandings of what his presidency is about. This coalition has weakened substantially. Obama’s attention must be on holding it together. He cannot resurrect the foreign policy part of it at this point. He must bet on the fact that the coalition has nowhere else to go. What he must focus on is domestic policy crafted to hold his base and center together long enough to win the election.
The world, therefore, is facing at least 14 months with the United States being at best reactive and at worse non-responsive to events. Obama has never been a foreign policy president; events and proclivity (I suspect) have always drawn him to domestic matters. But between now and the election, the political configuration of the United States and the dynamics of his presidency will force him away from foreign policy.
This at a time when the Persian Gulf is coming to terms with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the power of Iran, when Palestinians and Israelis are facing another crisis over U.N. recognition, when the future of Europe is unknown, when North Africa is unstable and Syria is in crisis and when U.S. forces continue to fight in Afghanistan. All of this creates opportunities for countries to build realities that may not be in the best interests of the United States in the long run. There is a period of at least 14 months for regional powers to act with confidence without being too concerned about the United States.
The point of this analysis is to try to show the dynamics that have led the United States to this position, and to sketch the international landscape in broad strokes. The U.S. president will not be deeply engaged in the world for more than a year. Thus, he will have to cope with events pressed on him. He may undertake initiatives, such as trying to revive the Middle East peace process, but such moves would have large political components that would make it difficult to cope with realities on the ground. The rest of the world knows this, of course. The question is whether and how they take advantage of it.