A midterm reversal for Obama?

October 7, 2010

By George Friedman
The opinions expressed are his own.

The following is a condensed version of George Friedman’s geopolitical column for STRATFOR.

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.

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Mr. Friedman makes some excellent points and observations here, and reaches some solid, if necessarily speculative at this point, conclusions.

However, there are some other points worth considering, in my view, worth taking up, if only to kick around a bit.

For instance, should the Republicans win the House (moderately conceivable) and/or the Senate (um, not so much), then they’ll have two years to push their scenario more often and more strongly than they have this Congressional tour. However, about the only two ideas I’ve seen with any clarity coming from the GOP are the “Pledge to America” and a promise to return to President George W. Bush-era policies.

I tend to vote split-ticket — never voted a straight one, in fact, though I’ve fairly strongly favored the GOP over the decades — but I have some friends who are such committed Republicans that they would almost rather be shot or to lose their American citizenship than to vote or support a Democrat, yet even a fair number of them are at least suspicious of the “Pledge to America,” pointing out it’s quite devoid of anything specific, instead filled with bromides, cliches, and platitudes. Some go even further, seeing it as a smoke screen for a stealth return to Bush’s policies, which they largely oppose.

So, if the Republicans enter the House victorious — let’s forget the Senate, since that’s fairly unlikely — and depend solely on the fluff of the “Pledge to America” and a return to policies that failed, except to improve the status of the upper-class and to widen income disparities even further, then they find themselves in a position to the emperor’s and his new clothes. Had Bush been eligible for a third term and won, I have little doubt we would have attacked Iran by know, “giving” us a THIRD war. Undoubtedly an unfunded one, as the first two were. Does the current GOP want us to move beyond “lock-and-load” to “fire at will”? Well, that fits in with platitudes regarding American exceptionalism, but it hardly fits in with the Pledge’s promise, for example, of a smaller, more transparent government. After all, there is precious little evidence, if any, from the Bush years to suggest the Republicans have any real interest in transparency in particular. To wit: warrantless wire taps and the FBI’s now-infamous “National Security Letters,” which amounted to, in effect, “notes from Mommy telling the recipient to ‘just give the nice man anything he wants, and oh, by the way, keep your mouth shut — or else.”

It would be salubrious for a Republican-led House to try to push for at least maintaining such practices or, preferably, expanding them. Then more Americans would see The Man Behind the Curtain.

The darlings of the Tea Party could be useful for eye-opening as well. Personally, though I’m far from being a supporter of the Tea Party, I do think Tea Partiers have some legitimate questions, concerns, and fears that deserve attention. (Of course, I also think some of the fears, in particular the “death panels” implanted in some by “The Nihilist of the North,” Sarah Palin, self-appointed “Mama Grizzly # 1″ are simply, and utterly, unfounded.) In any case, I suspect the Tea Partiers will find themselves with a sense of disappointment, at best, and outright betrayal, at worst. And we all know the old adage about the “wrath of love scorned.” It might also encourage members of the Tea Party movement to take a second — and deeper — look at people such as the Kock brothers and Dick Armey, not to mention Newt Gingrinch. (BTW, to Newt’s credit, his “Contract with America” was VASTLY superior to the limp rag “Pledge to America” currently on offer. The RNC should have asked HIM to write their “pledge.” At worst, he couldn’t have *possibly* done any worse, even had he set out to do so — which he wouldn’t have done. They likely would have ended up with a concise, hard-hitting, highly-specific, and clear document amounting to a real battle plan. One even an opponent could respect.)

And I’ve already mentioned Palin, who is more of a media star — for the moment — than a politician, given her evasiveness about 2012. If Thomas Jefferson is to politics what Shakespeare is to poetry and drama, then Palin is to politics what Immanual Kant was to easy-to-understand clear writing. (Just try Kant’s “A Critique of Pure reason” if you don’t get my drift. Brilliant philosopher, but exceedly difficult to understand.) I mean — “refudiate”?

It well could turn out that Republicans who are *not* on the far right might begin a push-back against Palin, if they ever get over their terror of her. I feel there’s some reasonable possibility she’ll implode before 2012, particularly if her Favorite Cub (one of them anyway), O’Donnell makes an idiot of herself should she win, a very real possibility. “Like Mother, Like Daughter.”

We’ll see. . . .

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