It's Legacy Time, but History, like Life, Can be Unfair
Amid the usual post-election barrages of commentary about what messages the election result supposedly carries and how elected leaders ought to change their behavior in response, it is difficult to find any issue-specific messages about U.S. foreign policy in this week's result. As Michael Cohen points out, the available evidence from polls, including exit polls, is that foreign policy issues did not play a significant role in the outcome. It is true, as Gordon Adams observes, that a “witches' brew, fired up by Republican candidates,” of fears did play a role—fear of getting attacked by an ISIS terrorist, of catching Ebola, and of being swamped by immigrants flooding across the southern border. But as far as presidential policy is concerned these are not matters that were the making of the current president or are translatable into changes of course in his policies.
The one thing about Barack Obama that is different now that the election is over is, of course, that not only will he never be running for anything again but also no one else will be running for anything that will change the make-up of the U.S. Congress during his presidency. Some suggest that he still needs to be concerned about affecting the prospects for whoever will be his party's candidate for president in 2016, but that does not really need to be a constraint. Visible distance between Mr. Obama and the Democratic presidential candidate will not necessarily hurt the latter and might even help.
So now, more than ever, the president should think and act strictly and narrowly according to what is in his best judgment in the best interest of the nation while excluding from his calculations what is popular or politic. In practice this advice will frequently conflict with another common theme of post-election commentary, which is that the president needs to try more than ever to reach across the party divide to work with the opposition, now that the opposition has won big. The first type of advice should take precedence because we (and Mr. Obama) already have enough experience to know that the second type of advice will in the current circumstances yield few results. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank aptly summarized the political dynamics involved by observing that “Republicans didn't run on an agenda other than antipathy to all things Obama” and that “it was enough, electorally, for Republicans to say they were against whatever President Obama was for.” An optimistic view is that having majority status in both houses of Congress will impart a greater sense of ownership of policy and an associated sense of responsibility that has hitherto been lacking, but it is unrealistic to think that the target of the unrelenting antipathy that made for a winning electoral strategy is likely suddenly to be perceived instead as a partner in policymaking.
The senior senator from Kentucky, who is in line to become Senate majority leader, declared during Mr. Obama's first term that the number one goal of himself and his party colleagues in Congress was not to improve the state of the economy, to enhance the health and welfare of Americans, to strengthen the standing of the United States in the world, or to do anything else to further the national interest; according to the senator their number one goal was instead to deny President Obama a second term. They failed in that goal but instead did what was the nearest thing to it, which was, in Adams's words, to mount a campaign “to prevent the president from achieving any of his agenda—from health care to climate change to immigration.” Do not expect such habits to change now that a blocking minority in the Senate has become a majority.
In considering what a hypothetical president who is perfectly tuned to what is good for the national interest and not necessarily good politics ought to be concentrating on in foreign policy over the next two years, one should think first in terms of long-term trends and future challenges that are not fashionable fears of the moment such as ISIS, Ebola, or those scruffy immigrants. Climate change certainly deserves to be at or near the top of any such list, but also high on the list should be more of that pivoting to East Asia that so far has been more of a talked-about concept than a thorough addressing of America's future relations with China.