Shadow Government

What are foreign-policy consequences of the midterm election results?

The midterm election results were a strong rebuke of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party's stewardship of political power, but they turned almost entirely on domestic issues, not foreign policy. Therefore, the foreign-policy implications of the election are likely to be indirect rather than direct.

Even when foreign-policy issues are an important factor in a midterm election -- think the public dissatisfaction with the Iraq War that helped fuel Democratic gains in 2006 -- it does not necessarily translate into a predictable change on those issues. The new Democratic-controlled Congress believed they had a mandate to force a rapid retreat from Iraq in 2007 and they tried very hard to impose that policy on the Bush administration. Former President George W. Bush interpreted the 2006 election as a partial rebuke of his Iraq policy, but opted for the opposite response, the surge, and very narrowly kept the surge alive long enough to show results on the ground. Democrats came very close to thwarting the surge in the summer of 2007, but they failed in their effort. Implication: A highly resolved president can prevail on a foreign-policy issue even against a highly motivated oppositional Congress.

The next Congress may well be oppositional, but it will not be singularly motivated on a foreign-policy issue. For starters, there is no clear foreign-policy mandate coming out of the election. So far as I can determine, exit polls asked about only two foreign-policy issues: Afghanistan and the recent attempted terrorist attack.  Interestingly, of those voters who ranked these issues at the very top of their list of concerns, Democrats won: 57 percent-41 percent in favor of Democrats on Afghanistan and 55 percent -43 percent on the recent terrorist attempt. But only small portions of the electorate considered these their top issues: 8 percent on Afghanistan and 9 percent on terrorism.

But elections have consequences, and even though the consequences will be more dramatic on domestic policy issues, there will nevertheless be discernible implications for foreign policy. Here are three quick ones: 

  • President Obama will face an even more difficult time mobilizing Democrats to support his war policies. A majority of voters (54 percent) said they disapproved of the Afghanistan war and an even larger majority of those disapprovers (61 percent) voted Democrat. Obama is even more reliant on Republican support for his war in Afghanistan than he was this past year. Moreover, the departure of national security moderate Democrats from the House of Representatives combined with the freedom that being a minority party grants means that the Democratic caucus in the House will likely be even more stridently anti-war.  
  • Democrats lost their most respected voice on national security, Congressman Ike Skelton of Missouri. Some respected voices remain in the House, notably Jane Harman of California, but this election reverses a trend that could be traced to the party's response to the 9/11 attacks: the cultivation of a "strong on national security" wing among House Democrats. Skelton was uniquely respected on both sides of the aisle, in particular because he devoted time and effort to issues that were significant in a larger strategic sense but not hot-button electoral issues, such as professional military education, interservice rivalry, or the development of grand strategy. It will be harder to forge strong bipartisan positions on national security without more strong national security moderate voices from the Democratic side of the aisle.
  • President Obama is likely to prioritize foreign-policy issues more in the next two years than he did in the previous two years. Obama faces the prospect of compromising with Republicans in order to get things done on domestic policy or focusing attention on areas where he can do what he wants while ignoring Congress. He may well choose the latter. The president's long trip to Asia could be both a symbol and a harbinger of this approach. There are plenty of foreign policy concerns to preoccupy him and he will certainly have a higher success rate of prevailing over Republicans on foreign policy than on domestic policy.

Bottom line: While foreign policy was not a front-burner issue in the run-up to the midterm elections, it could well re-emerge as a front-burner and contentious issue in very short order.

Shadow Government

Obama's Asia trip will be his first post-election test

Within a week of suffering the biggest midterm drubbing in generations, President Barack Obama will depart on a trip to India, Indonesia, Japan and Korea. How the president handles this trip will speak volumes about how he sees his agenda for the next two years and how much of an international president he really is.

The first test will be whether he takes the trip at all. Democratic Party strategists and other influential pundits have already begun questioning why he would go abroad and let Republicans seize the narrative at the most crucial point in his presidency. On CNN, former advisor to President Bill Clinton, David Gergen, warned the White House against making the same mistake Clinton made when he went abroad in the wake of Republican midterm victories in November 1994. Will they cancel? The president has already put off previously scheduled trips to India and Indonesia because of domestic political developments. On the other hand, the White House likes to claim this is the first "Pacific president," because Obama grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii (though other presidents like William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy had plenty of experience in the Pacific as well, of course), and that the United States is "back" in Asia (though commentators across the region are asking when the United States ever left). All of this spin -- the first "Pacific president" and the "we're back in Asia" mantra -- would go flying out the window if the president cancelled his trip. Clinton was right not to cancel his international travel in 1994 -- it would have made the presidency appear even weaker. That would have been disastrous politics and worse geostrategy. So odds are pretty good that the president will go on the trip (fingers crossed).

The next test will be how the president handles ten days of hounding from the press about electoral defeats while he is in Asia. And the press will hound -- no doubt about it. Maybe if North Korea fires artillery across the DMZ during the G-20 summit in Seoul or China attacks the Senkaku Islands while the president is in Japan, the press corps might be distracted from domestic U.S. politics to focus briefly on international events. Or maybe the president will dig deep into his oratorical tool box to help shift the media's focus to U.S. interests in Asia -- the continent projected to contribute 60 percent of global GDP in our lifetime. He will have real occasion to look presidential again if he avoids the trivia of fact sheets and joint statements and presents a vision for international U.S. leadership. The visit to Indonesia -- the world's largest Muslim nation and one that proves Islam and democracy coexist-- could be a moment for articulating a real message about the compatibility of democratic values and Muslim faith. The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Yokohama would be the place to remind Americans that over 50 percent of our trade is with this dynamic region, and that the United States can and must compete. The stops in India, Japan and Korea would be the right settings for explaining why investing in our strategic partnerships and alliances will pay dividends in terms of tackling the challenges we face internationally. The president must not re-fight the midterm, appear defensive, or make the narrative about himself (the last of these being the default narrative of the White House on foreign trips thus far). He must ignore what John McCain would call the "ground noise" and talk about the United States and Asia. The press might just listen. The region certainly will.

The third test will be on trade. If there is one area where the White House should be able to work with a more Republican Congress, it is on trade. And if there is one policy area Asia is watching to see if Washington is committed, it's trade. The president has said that he wants the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) ready to present to Congress (again) by the end of the year, but the administration has done no heavy lifting to get to that point (all the action has been aimed at pressing the Koreans to make further compromises). Fair enough -- there were elections coming up, and it may have been unrealistic to expect a Democratic White House to take on its labor union base when turnout was so critical to their electoral strategy. This trip is the time to demonstrate not only the hope that KORUS will be introduced this year, but the intention to do so in partnership with Republicans willing to work for its passage. It would set a tone that Asia would welcome and that Americans desiring more bipartisanship in Washington would be thankful for.

The president's Asia trip should not be seen by the White House as an unfortunate distraction, but instead as a real test of presidential leadership -- one that will help the president and the country if he approaches it the right way.