The National Journal’s James Oliphant lays out a pretty good analysis of how the president’s speech last week at the LBJ Library sounded like the speech of a president who is starting to say goodbye. And Oliphant concludes, “Better to begin the farewell tour now — and start leaving the markers for history to follow.” I disagree. The notion that President Obama is checking out might be less consequential here at home because there is no longer any expectation of a robust governing agenda, but overseas, leaving the impression that the president has left the stage will further alarm our allies and embolden America’s enemies.Multiple crises and foreign policy challenges are now at critical pivot points. The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have all but ended, the chances of reaching a final nuclear deal with Iran by July 20 seem slim (but a real effort to make progress must continue), Russia is on the march and taunting the president, America’s Asian allies are concerned about our commitment as they watch the Chinese military expand, the fiasco in Syria continues to unfold in the face of U.S. inaction and the North Koreans seem to be as aggressive as ever with their belligerent talk and worrisome new drone capabilities. The list goes on, but the point is that we need a president who the world believes is engaged.
Usually, foreign policy is a good escape for a president in his second term. Presidents can maintain a flattering high profile by traveling to see friendly foreign audiences; receiving positive news coverage just from carrying the flag abroad. But as I’ve noted in the past, this president hasn’t bonded with any foreign leaders that I’m aware of, and he doesn’t appear to be on the brink of any foreign policy breakthrough that will amount to much. But that doesn’t mean it is best if he quits trying.
It’s true that national security issues don’t drive any votes, but a national security calamity can drive votes — and in President Obama’s case, neglecting national security issues can add to the view that he and his party cannot govern. And nothing about that is good for him or the Democrats in 2014. Obviously, I’m against the president and his Democratic allies at the ballot box, but I do care about how the world views America’s rapid decline. If there were ever a time for some imagination, creativity, energy and willingness to put in some miles of travel, it would be now. It’s not like the president is doing anything that particularly ties him to the Oval Office for the next several months.
And as bad as the president’s foreign policy has been, quitting now — or appearing to quit — would only make things worse. There is too much at stake to throw in the towel. President Obama should be careful not to signal that he is finished. He can’t embark on a two-and-a-half-year farewell tour, and the fawning nostalgia from the left can’t start until his successor is in place.
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