A Foreign-Policy President?

Barack Obama has scuttled the GOP and seems triumphant at home. But with ominous clouds gathering abroad, foreign policy has the potential to wreck his presidency.

Barack Obama's press conference on Wednesday showed that he's finding his presidential sea legs. Contrasted with his previous appearances, he was more relaxed, composed and humorous. Whipping out a pen like a schoolboy and writing down whether he was "enchanted," "surprised" and so forth was a disarming move.

Despite the manifold problems he confronts, however, Obama could hardly have complained about the way the last week of his first one hundred days had unfolded. He can pretty much do what he likes. The Republican opposition has opposed him in name only. Republicans have been too preoccupied fighting each other to focus on the president. So if Obama wants to impose confiscatory taxes on the wealthy, he can do it. The GOP will simply fume about his iniquities without being able to do much about them.

In Britain-which is heading back pell-mell to the socialist policies of the years following World War II, when the welfare state was constructed-Gordon Brown wants to raise the marginal tax rate on personal income to no less than 50 percent for the wealthy, which has Andrew Lloyd Webber decrying a Somali-like pirate raid. He has a point. High taxes do not promote investment and growth. On the contrary, they tend to stifle it.

It's Republicans, however, who have set the stage for a similar shift in America. As former arch-free marketer Richard Posner argues in his new book on capitalism, some restraints and controls are necessary to avoid the kind of bust that America has just experienced. Obama is shrewdly capitalizing on that bust to push not simply for reform, but, rather, a sweeping restructuring of America.  As the GOP snipes at Obama, it doesn't really seem to have acknowledged that he is the most ambitious Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Rather, Republicans have been assuming that they'll make a comeback in 2010, as though this were an inevitable law of politics. An off-year election, they reason, has historically resulted in gains for the minority party. But it may not happen this time. As Fred Barnes recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, it's dangerous to engage in straight-line historical projections. In fact, it could well prove the case that Democrats capture even more seats in the House and Senate.

One rather obvious reason is that the GOP doesn't have its act together. Its behavior seems more reminiscent of Bo, the new presidential dog, than a political party. Like Bo, its been chewing at Obama's shoes and acting a little crazy, which is fun when you're a pup but not so fine when you're supposed to be a grand party. Applauding Arlen Specter's departure is one of the craziest things conservatives have done, since his defection greases the path for Obama's makeover of healthcare. As David Frum, a lonely voice of reason, scaldingly asked conservatives, "Happy?" It's also the case that trying to hamstring the party's national chairman, Michael S. Steele, by circulating a resolution that prevents the Republican National Committee from spending more than $100,000 without the approval of the executive committee or the treasurer, as the Washington Post reported Thursday, is another sign of the infighting that is consuming the GOP.

Then there's the Dick Cheney problem. Cheney's self-serving appearances to defend the Bush administration's torture policies seem designed to further boost the fortunes of the Democrats. His fusillades against the Democrats are friendly fire, wounding his allies-much as he shot up his hunting pal Harry Whittington in February 2006. Or is Cheney actually a Democratic mole? Is he pulling a Specter without announcing it publicly?

Another reason 2010 may not redound to the benefit of Republicans is the economy. If the economy begins to perk up in a few months, Obama will be set. Household spending is already up and businesses have cut inventories so deeply that an economic boom could take place. Obama, of course, will denounce the GOP for having refused to support his stimulus package and take all the credit for reviving America's fortunes. In a sense, Obama is becoming a kind of Reagan Democrat. He's assuming that a surging economy will help fix the onerous national debt that he's contracting with-most recently, a $3.4 trillion spending plan, which passed the House and Senate on Wednesday.

Maybe, then, it won't be the economy, but foreign policy that proves most treacherous for Obama. The president has been pouring troops into Afghanistan, which has some foreign-policy mavens scenting Vietnam redux. Meanwhile, Pakistan seems to be going blooey, as the Taliban impose their peculiar brand of religious fervor in the Swat Valley, while the Pakistani army doesn't seem to have much interest in swatting them back.

For his part, Obama said he was "gravely concerned" about Pakistan's stability, which he should be, and that waterboarding amounted to torture, which it does. But the debate over torture is probably going to peter out soon because Americans have a short attention span and Obama keeps indicating that it's so yesterday. Anyway, Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots suddenly don't seem as immediate as the prospect of a swine-flu pandemic, which is terrorizing much of the world. Does al-Qaeda's leadership have access to a vaccine? Perhaps there's something to be said for the decadent West after all, a point Obama might have made last evening.

But Obama clearly demonstrated that he's becoming increasingly comfortable with the role of commander-in-chief. If Obama's next one hundred days are as productive as the first, he won't need the bipartisan "timeout" he yearned for at his press conference. He won't even have to make that many points. Instead, his record will speak for itself.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.