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Does Obama See a Silver Lining in Losing the House?

By Elvin Lim


The “Summer of Recovery” has failed to materialize, and with that, the White House has had to start planning for 2012 earlier than expected.

After all, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had already conceded this summer that the House may fall to Republican hands. (Nancy Pelosi didn’t like the sound of his prescience then, but Gibbs was merely thinking strategically for his boss.) The one thing Democrats have going for them is that nearly every political commentator believes that an electoral tsunami awaits Democrats this fall, which means that they have low expectations on their side. And because the Democrats currently have a healthy majority, it would be nearly impossible that the flip will generate a Republican majority bigger than the one Democrats now enjoy. Victory for the Republicans would not taste so sweet because it would be fragile.

There is a silver lining inside this silver lining for the White House. If Republicans take control of the House, then at noon on January 3, 2011, President Obama will finally be able to do what presidents do best – blame the stalled progress on his domestic agenda on congressional intransigence, and switch to the domain in which presidents are able to act (and receive credit) unilaterally – foreign policy.

About a week and a half ago, Obama appeared to be embarking on this strategy, when he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Whereas his second Oval Office address started with foreign policy issues and meandered awkwardly toward the economy (because the President was still hoping for a “summer of recovery”), the President’s first press conference inverted this order of priorities.

This press conference was delivered in the middle of the work day. It was directed to Washington elites and insiders, not the American public, for whom more talk of the economy would have been politically appropriate this election year. But the president began with the economy, but then ended with the Arab-Israeli conflict – displaying not only the agenda-setting power of the media to determine what presidents talk about, but also the instinct of presidents (even liberal ones) to withdraw to foreign policy as the presidential domain when domestic policy is not producing political credit for them.

It is no coincidence that very few Democratic candidates are campaigning on healthcare reform, even though it is the signature accomplishment of the Obama presidency and Democratic congress and the topic which headlined the political discussions of 2009. This is why Obama did not mention healthcare reform at all in his first and second Oval Office addresses, and he only brought it up haltingly and defensively in his first press conference last Friday.

With unemployment still at about 9.6 percent, everyone knows that the preeminent issue for Election 2010 is the economy. But Obama actually has, by a 10-point margin, higher approval numbers in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief than his handling of the economy. The White House realizes that the lack of results or higher casualties in Afghanistan doesn’t matter. What matters is that Obama is doing exactly what a Republican president would have done in Afghanistan and when there is nothing to fight about, the public approves.

After spending half of his first term on an ambitious domestic agenda for which he has gotten no credit but only blame, Obama may find reprieve in finding a legacy in foreign policy and in particular Middle East peace. To be sure, almost every president in recent history has turned to this issue in their second term but Obama is ahead of the curve because his first term has been as unusually productive as it was controversial and he may be fearing that his first term may be his last. Obama is switching tracks also because he is done fighting the Tea Party movement and wants to bring them on board after 20 months of rancor. The Tea Partiers do not care for either the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, because they care neither for a bloated healthcare state nor for an expensive national security state. With no guarantee that healthcare reform or financial regulation will deliver the benefits promised to the American people, the White House is approaching the conclusion that foreign policy accomplishments and in particular peace in the Middle East could unite the liberal with the libertarian (and divide the fiscal conservatives and the neo-conservatives), and in it may be found a new pursuit for a floundering presidency.

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. Read Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

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