President Obama has been chafing for months at the notion that he’s a lame-duck president. That’s one reason he took the offensive in the run-up to the State of the Union address. His aides insist that Obama plays his best in the fourth quarter of the game, and they want him to finish strong, from an opening with Iran to closing Guantanamo.
Obama owns foreign policy for another two years. And the Middle East, which has haunted every State of the Union address for as long as I can remember, presents new opportunities for either breakthrough diplomacy or disastrous conflict. How Obama handles the Iranian nuclear issue, in particular, may define his presidency.
But the political lens is already beginning to shift from Obama to the three politicians whom, according to the polls, people would most like to see run in 2016: Republicans Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush and Democrat Hillary Clinton. A CBS poll this week reported that 59 percent of Republicans think Romney should run and 50 percent want Bush. Among Democrats, an amazing 85 percent want Clinton in the race.
What’s interesting about the 2016 race is that the Republican and Democratic candidates are all positioned to run against Obama’s foreign policies. Partly that’s an inevitable reaction after a two-term presidency: No candidate wants to promise more of the same. But it’s more than that. The critiques of Obama are already sharply etched, and they’ll overhang the political landscape for the next two years.
Romney’s best argument on foreign policy is that he was right about the resurgence of al-Qaeda and other Muslim extremist groups. In the Oct. 22, 2012, debate, Obama made breezy comments about how al-Qaeda’s core leadership had been “decimated,” but a somber Romney had it exactly right: “It’s really not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America long-term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”
It was a devastating exchange, in hindsight. And it was compounded by Obama’s glib claim that he had been right to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011: “What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.” We can see now that Obama was wrong. He has been forced to rush thousands of troops back to Iraq to deal with a crisis that might have been avoided if wiser policies had been followed.
Although Romney was correct about al-Qaeda, he was wrong about Iran. He dismissed Obama’s strategy of engagement, said he wouldn’t need congressional authorization to strike Iran militarily and warned of the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon: “We can’t afford to wait much longer, and we certainly can’t afford to wait through four more years of an Obama administration. By then it will be far too late.” That was too militaristic: By the last debate, Romney had softened his tone but he still seemed to take his policy cues from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Clinton also appears to be ready to run against elements of Obama’s foreign policy. Some White House officials chafed at this fratricide in her 2014 memoir, “Hard Choices.” When I reviewed the book last year, I listed a series of issues where “Clinton displayed good judgment as secretary of state and understood some important issues earlier than her boss, President Obama.”
Among Clinton’s prescient moments was her early embrace in 2009 of what became the “pivot” to Asia; her caution about dumping Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011; her support for arming the Syrian opposition in 2012 after the breakdown of U.N. mediation efforts; and her early warning in 2013 that trouble was ahead with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Needless to say, this laundry list of how Clinton got it right did not please the Obama White House.
Finally, there’s the peculiar problem of Bush. If he gets the Republican nomination, he may have to run against the foreign policies of both Obama and his own brother, George W. Bush. Because the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is now so widely judged to have been a mistake, it will be an early priority for Jeb Bush to assure the country that he wouldn’t be similarly reckless.
Obama held the lectern Tuesday night. But the question increasingly will be: What comes next?