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NewYorker: A Foreign-Policy President

Author: George Packer
June 12, 2012

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George Packer analyzes the 2012 presidential election and Obama's main strategies to face up Romney. He suggests that whether Obama wins or loses, he will principally be remembered for his foreign-policy achievements.

Two things stick with me from Ryan Lizza's excellent piece in this week's magazine—way to get them to talk on the record, Ryan!—on what an Obama second term might look like. First is David Plouffe, Obama's wunderkind strategist, discussing this year's campaign. "In some elections, he said, two candidates may try to hide their differences as they woo moderate voters. But this year the Obama campaign would insure that the competing ideologies of the two major parties are not blurred. 'Everything we do has to be with that in mind,' Plouffe said." (Or, in the formulation of Michael Tomasky, "We inherited a total disaster, things are getting better, and Romney will bring us back to disaster.") I'll get back to this, but it's an extraordinary thing to hear from the non-ideological Plouffe.

Second is Ben Rhodes, speechwriter and deputy national security advisor, mentioning Reagan's second term as a model for Obama's in foreign policy and telling Ryan, "The President can make a huge mark on the world, and often that's what people remember."

If Obama loses—a possibility that's become the wisdom of the week—I think he'll be remembered most for his foreign-policy achievements. And if he wins, the same will be true, except that he'll have a chance of being a great foreign-policy President. Rhodes is right: foreign policy defines every President more than he expects coming in, and it does so in completely unexpected ways. It's both more out of the President's control than domestic issues and more under his control. It's played to all of Obama's strengths. In this sense, a one-term Obama Presidency would look less like the one that's often held up as a spectre of failure, Jimmy Carter's, and more like the one that's increasingly considered a success, that of George H. W. Bush, the living President about whom Obama has had the most nice things to say.

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