President Obama looked almost relieved after Tuesday’s election blowout. A man who has been perhaps the least political president in modern U.S. history doesn’t have to worry about elections anymore.
“I’m going to be busy for the next two years,” Obama said at his “What, Me Worry?” news conference Wednesday. He batted away questions about his political setback in the midterm elections. “At the end of my presidency, I’ll say, we played that fourth quarter well.”
Let’s take Obama at his word: Looking at foreign policy, what’s his agenda for the next two years? For a weakened president, what would amount to a good finish, and what changes should Obama make to achieve that outcome?
Obama’s opportunities are, in fact, considerable: A month from now he could have a nuclear deal with Iran or at least a framework that pockets significant Iranian concessions; he could agree with China on a joint package of climate-control measures; he could move Japan and other Asian nations toward a free-trade agreement, which might jump-start similar trade negotiations with Europe.
The big problems? The fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is a nightmare, and Obama’s policy is still too vague and cautious. But the jihadists’ explosive expansion seems to have been halted, and a slow rollback will have to continue well beyond Obama’s departure from the White House. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is a dangerous wild card, but he’s playing a fundamentally weak hand, and Russian diplomats are signaling that they want a gradual resumption of normal dialogue with the United States.
Obama’s biggest challenge — his acid test, if you will — is whether he can revitalize his foreign policy team so he can make the most of these opportunities. White House officials say that Obama knows he needs new blood, wider bandwidth, more intellectual capital — choose your metaphor. What this might mean is still a matter of speculation, perhaps because Obama hasn’t made any decisions.
Here are some guesses about personnel matters. The White House wants Antony Blinken, the deputy national security adviser, to move to the State Department to replace Bill Burns as deputy secretary. This offers a chance to augment the national security staff under Susan Rice, whom Obama appears unwilling to replace.
Who might join Rice atop the National Security Council? Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, was offered the job but turned it down. Insiders mention other big-stature people who could help Rice manage policy, such as Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state. Last summer, Burns was offered his old State Department job back and then the post of national security adviser to Vice President Biden. He declined both.
Among Cabinet officials, Secretary of State John Kerry seems to have reenlisted, with responsibility for the Iran nuclear talks and perhaps a new role as emissary to Putin in Moscow. Administration officials speculate that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel may leave well before the president’s term ends; a likely replacement would be former undersecretary Michele Flournoy, who was nearly picked for the job in 2013. Flournoy would also be a strong candidate for deputy national security adviser.
Obama’s challenge in his final two years won’t be to conceive new foreign policy strategy (it’s pretty much set) but to implement it. Here’s where Rice will need to improve as a manager. An example is fully empowering retired Gen. John Allen, Obama’s special envoy for Syria and Iraq. Given its political and military importance, this post should be part of the White House staff. Instead, Allen was attached to State, which limits his clout.
Gen. David Petraeus always liked to ask subordinates, “What’s the big idea?” as a way of prodding thinking. It’s a good question for Obama as he looks ahead.
Obama’s top aides have prepared a good to-do list: making a solid transition in Afghanistan under the new coalition government; making Iraq a test of the U.S.-led coalition’s ability to fight extremism (and meanwhile, getting serious about Syria); getting a nuclear deal with Iran; reaching a trade deal in Asia, and maybe Europe; cooperating with China on climate change and other issues, such as counterterrorism; partnering with an India that, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, wants better relations with the United States; checking Putin’s aggression, while keeping the door open to re-engaging Russia.
“I’m . . . a practical guy,” Obama said Wednesday. Despite the overwhelming rejection of his party and policies in Tuesday’s elections, Obama has a practical foreign policy agenda. If he does the follow-through, it’s an achievable one.
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