Second-Term Obama Looks Abroad

Social scientists find that foreign policy can help or hinder domestic policy.

As late-term presidents are wont to do, President Obama has been turning his eyes to the world stage, forging, for instance, a climate deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November.

Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images

President Obama devoted more time to foreign policy Tuesday night than he has in past State of the Union addresses, appropriate after a year seemingly packed full of international crises. But in contrast to how he discussed his domestic agenda, the president wasn’t really asking Congress for much when it comes to the rest of the world.

The president called for new cybersecurity legislation and asked for a new authorization for military force to fight ISIS, though this seemed a bit less than urgent given that the White House has been completely comfortable bombing Iraq and Syria under the decade-old legal framework already in place. On Iran, he asked Congress not to do anything, threatening to veto any new sanctions that might undermine international negotiations over that country’s nuclear program.

In part, this reflects this White House’s recent strategy of doing as much as possible on foreign policy without having to involve Congress, but it also reflects something more universal about second-term presidents. Given that the Constitution gives the president more latitude to act unilaterally on foreign policy than on domestic issues, presidents often decide late in their terms, with their domestic momentum starting to stall, to look abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

Dwight Eisenhower created NASA, effectively launching the space race with the Soviet Union, in 1958, midway through his second term. Ronald Reagan spent much of his last two years on negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev. Bill Clinton deepened his involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process ahead of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and launched the U.S. intervention in Kosovo. George W. Bush attempted to reboot his unpopular foreign policy in his second term with a new troop surge in Iraq, a new initiative to combat AIDS in Africa, and an ultimately unsuccessful push to restart Middle East peace talks.

Since last November’s midterm defeat, Obama has shown signs of a similar tendency, with a flurry of initiatives including reopening diplomatic relations with Cuba after half a century, inking a new climate change agreement with China, and deepening U.S. involvement in the fight against ISIS.

The reason why second-term presidents take a greater interest in foreign policy initiatives isn’t just because they’re out of other options—it may be partly a reflection of political incentive.

A study published in the most recent American Journal of Political Science by Christopher Gelpi of Ohio State and Joseph M. Grieco of Duke looks at how a president’s perceived foreign policy success impacts his ability to pass legislation.

Looking at public support for military engagements between 1953 and 2001 (for the United States, this is sadly a pretty large sample), the authors find that an “public disapproval of presidential handling of militarized disputes has a significant and substantial negative impact on the president’s ability to persuade Congress to pass laws that move policy in his preferred direction.” They write that

when a President is engaged in a international militarized dispute and only 30 percent of the public supports his handling of the crisis (as was the case for George W. Bush during the latter stages of the Iraq War), then the probability that Congress will pass a bill on a domestic issue that moves policy toward the president is only about 20 percent. On the other hand, when the president is engaged in a militarized dispute and 80 percent of the public approves of his handling of the crisis (as was the case for George H.W. Bush during the Persian Gulf War) then the probability of legislative success more than doubles to about 45 percent.

The effect is present whether Congress is controlled by the president’s own party or the opposition. This could be because legislators are less likely to make concessions to a leader viewed as incompetent, or it could be because foreign policy crises may start to crowd domestic issues off the agenda. The extreme example of this was Lyndon Johnson, whose domestic initiatives were hindered late in his presidency by growing public opposition to the war in Vietnam.

On the other hand, the authors find no evidence that public support for the president’s handling of a crisis raises his rate of success higher than it would have been if the president had never gotten involved in the crisis in the first place.

The data set in the paper is limited to military engagements rather than diplomatic initiatives or other foreign policy acts, but the finding does suggest that a foreign policy failure may hinder a president’s agenda more than success helps it. So it makes some sense that presidents would take more of an interest in risky foreign policy initiatives under circumstances (lame-duck presidency, congenitally hostile Congress) when there’s not much opportunity for legislative success anyway.

Unfortunately for Obama, other circumstances may stand in the way of a second-term foreign policy renaissance. His foreign policy approval ratings—seen as a strength over Mitt Romney during the 2012 election following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the withdrawal from Iraq, and the earlier, more promising phases of the Arab Spring—have been on a downward spiral since early 2013. Subsequent events have changed the public perception of the Iraq withdrawal and may yet do the same for Afghanistan. The president used Russia’s economic woes as an opportunity to take a shot at Republican critics of his Ukraine response Tuesday night, though he surely realizes that U.S. sanctions against Putin’s government got a major unexpected assist from falling oil prices.

A number of opportunities still on the table, including a trans-Pacific trade deal, further normalization with Cuba, a global climate treaty, finally shuttering Gitmo, and a nuclear deal with Iran, could be subject to quite a bit of politically draining resistance from Congress. It seems possible that the White House has already pushed about as far as it can through executive action alone.

Then, of course, there’s Syria, a metastasizing conflict about which both U.S. policy and public opinion have seemed pretty incoherent. At this point, it’s a problem that’s likely to haunt the foreign (and perhaps also the domestic) policy of his successor.