A midterm reversal for Obama?
By George Friedman
The opinions expressed are his own.
We are now weeks away from the midterm elections in the United States. Much can happen between now and then, but if the current polls are to be believed, President Barack Obama is about to suffer a substantial political reversal.
To begin thinking about this, we must bear three things in mind. First, while Obama won a major victory in the Electoral College, he did not come anywhere near a landslide in the popular vote. Over the past year, poll numbers indicating support for his presidency have deteriorated to the low 40-percent range.
Second, he entered the presidency off balance. His early focus in the campaign was to argue that the war in Iraq was the wrong war to fight but that the war in Afghanistan was the right one. This positioned him as a powerful critic of George W. Bush without positioning him as an anti-war candidate. But Obama did not expect the global financial crisis. When it hit full blast in September 2008, he had no campaign strategy to deal with it.
Third, while in office, Obama tilted his focus away from the foreign affairs plank he ran on to one of domestic politics. In doing so, he shifted from the area where the president is institutionally strong to the place where the president is institutionally weak.
Therefore, the United States has a president who won a modest victory in the popular vote but whose campaign posture and the reality under which he took office have diverged substantially. If Obama suffers a significant defeat in Congress in the November elections, he will not be able to move his domestic agenda.
Under these circumstances, he would have two choices. The first is to go into opposition. Presidents go into opposition when they lose support in Congress. They run campaigns against Congress for blocking their agenda and blame Congress for any failures. The other option is to shift from the weak part of the presidency to the strong part, foreign policy, where a president can generally act decisively without congressional backing.
There is a problem in Obama choosing the second strategy. For Republicans, this strategy plays to their core constituency, for whom national security is a significant issue. It also is an effective tool to reach into the center. The same isn’t true for the Democrats. Obama’s Afghanistan policy has already alienated the Democratic left wing, and the core of the Democratic Party is primarily interested in economic and social issues.
We come back to foreign policy as a place where Obama will have to focus whether he likes it or not, and that leaves the wars that are continuing in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to know how Obama views it, given his contradictory signals of increasing the number of troops but setting a deadline for beginning their withdrawal. We do not know his view of the effect of the Afghan war on U.S. strategic posture or on Pakistan, and we do not know his view of the impact of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq on Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf.
One option is to solve the Iraq problem by attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. But launching a new war, while two others go on, is strategically risky. From a political point of view, it would alienate Obama’s political base, many of whom supported him because he would not undertake unilateral military moves. The Republicans would be most inclined to support him, but most would not vote for him under any circumstances.
That leaves another option that we have suggested before, one that would appeal both to Obama’s sensibility and to his political situation: pulling a Nixon. In 1971, Richard Nixon reached out to China while Chinese weapons were being used to kill American soldiers in Vietnam.
What the settlement with Iran might look like is murky at best. Whether Iran has any interest in such a settlement is murkier still. But Obama doesn’t have the personal strength and credibility to run against Congress for two years and then get re-elected. He has not gotten traction on a multilateral reconstruction of America’s global popularity. He has two wars ongoing, plus a major challenge from Iran. Attacking Iran from the air might or might not work, and it could weaken him politically. That leaves him with running against Congress or addressing the Middle East with a diplomatic masterstroke.
George Friedman is the founder and chief executive officer of STRATFOR.