An Eighth and Final Year
President Obama enters his final year in office at a time of rising conflict worldwide and deepening uncertainty about the security of the U.S. homeland. Public confidence in his presidency remains static and low at a time when anxiety about terrorism is at its highest since 2001.
This public mood is in sharp contrast to his inauguration. Entering office in 2009, Obama seized on the desire to shift away from almost a decade of costly war in the Middle East and Afghanistan and refocus U.S. efforts to domestic challenges and to the Pacific, where America faces a rising geopolitical and economic competitor in China. In contrast to his Republican challenger, John McCain (a celebrated veteran with impeccable national security credentials) and his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton (who voted to authorize the Iraq War), Obama rode into power as the candidate who best understood the public’s desire for a different course after his predecessor’s extensive overseas adventures and commitments.
Skeptical of the utility of military force, Obama prioritized active diplomacy and multilateral engagement over military force to address global challenges. He narrowed both the scope of the “War on Terror” to Al Qaeda and its affiliates and the methods employed to so-called ‘light footprint’ options, including Special Forces and drones. When the President did employ military force (in Libya, in Afghanistan and against Islamic State), it has often been poorly thought out and executed.
The president also came into office having concluded that America’s future is better served by investing in the Asia Pacific and in Latin America, instead of serving as the policeman of the greater Middle East. By taking a longer-term view, Obama was ill-prepared for the challenges of the present. Event after event in the Middle East seems to have caught him off guard. In favor of pragmatism over strategy, the White House became fixated how the media cycle viewed each action he took. As a result, Obama spent more time reacting to crises than pro-actively addressing them.
Out of Step with the American Public
At the end of his presidency, Obama finds himself out of step and out of touch with the American public. While the president has tried to argue that his approach in confronting threats is one that is steering the country on the right course, numerous opinion polls underscore how the majority of the public has lost faith in their commander-in-chief’s response to national security challenges. Obama has failed to convince the public that his long-term bets, ranging from the Iran deal to climate change, are better bets than more robustly focusing on present challenges such as ISIL.
The majority of the candidates for the presidency in 2016 are more hawkish and more comfortable with taking a muscular position to advance America’s national interests. From Hillary Clinton to Marco Rubio, their foreign policy remarks have focused on how they would more robustly address global challenges including ISIL and Russia. There’s practically a bipartisan consensus that the next president will need to try to alter President Obama’s current course.
The Final Year
In his final year in office, Obama faces the challenge of not being written off as a “lame duck” president as the American public focuses on who will lead the country in 2017. At present, the president and his advisors have given no indication that he’s ready to divert course from his current policies beyond making small tactical adjustments.
If Obama can endure the low poll numbers, the president will likely resist making any major shifts in his foreign policy. Instead, the White House will focus on consolidating the president’s major gains to date: the Iran deal, the Paris climate agreement, the TPP trade agreement and his opening to Cuba. These ‘wins’ are critical to his legacy and a validation of his foreign policy approach.
The president will also likely focus on transitioning current conflicts to his successor. Obama will continue to doggedly pursue a low-resourced anti-ISIS strategy, barring a major attack on the U.S. homeland. He will hope that the Vienna talks on Syria will continue to the end of his presidency and that his successor can bring them to a conclusion. If an agreement is reached, it would be a late-term validation in his view of his Syria policy. A settlement in Libya, too, will likely be kicked down the road.
In spite of these wishes, Obama may be forced to become a late-term wartime president. As his predecessors discovered, the final months of a presidency often hold surprises. The following foreign policy challenges may cause him to take actions in 2016 he never intended.
Afghanistan: The fragile security gains that Obama confidently assumed would hold are presently in tatters. Obama’s concession earlier this year that he would have to postpone his timeline of withdrawal of combat forces underscored how fragile America's position in Afghanistan presently is. Entering 2016, the Taliban is now surging while Al Qaeda is building a deepening footprint in the state. If the current U.S. force commitment and Afghan security forces can’t reverse these trends, Obama may be forced to invest more militarily in the conflict.