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Obama's Political Obstacle Course

Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 3, 2010

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President Barack Obama and the Democrats will be challenged by new congressional Republicans on domestic issues like unemployment and sluggish growth, and CFR President Richard N. Haass says how Obama reacts to the problems of deficit and debt are crucial, not just for politics "but for this country's future." In terms of foreign policy, Haass says Obama is likely to have Republican support for extending the withdrawal deadline in Afghanistan as well as on issues of free trade. But, Haass emphasizes, "the greatest--not just economic--but national security question hovering over the United States is whether and how we tackle our deficit and our accumulative debt in the next few years."

What did you find most significant about the midterm elections?

From the vantage point of foreign policy, it would be how little a role foreign policy played. It's ironic, given that we are in this global moment, where arguably we can affect and be more affected by the world than ever before. And secondly, we are at a time where we're still involved in two conflicts, yet you wouldn't know it. There's no evidence that people's political behavior this week was influenced by foreign policy issues.

Back in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats took control of the Congress, Iraq was a major issue. Why is Afghanistan not an issue?

The principal reason is that economics, unemployment, and all the associated issues have drowned out everything else. Also, most Americans don't see up close the cost of Afghanistan--either the financial cost of spending $2 billion a week or the human cost of the lives disrupted or lost. There is very little immediacy to what we are doing in Afghanistan when it comes to people's awareness.

Even though foreign policy was not a factor in the election, won't foreign governments see the vote against Democrats as a big blow against Obama?

It certainly won't help the president as he sets off for an Asia tour this week. This is the political opposite of having wind in your sail, and in the short run it doesn't help. It may also hurt him another way--and I could be wrong--but it's possible the trip won't be well-received here. A lot of Americans will say, "The message you should have taken from the election is to focus on jobs and the domestic economy, why are you now going to Indonesia and India?" But just because foreign policy had little or no impact on the election doesn't mean the election will have little or no impact on American foreign policy.

"You can probably argue that Republican gains in both the Senate and the House, at a minimum, have given the president leeway and possibly have strengthened his hand when it comes to "getting tough" or "staying the course," militarily."

If foreign governments read this as a setback to Obama, does this mean people like Afghan President Hamid Karzai, or the Iraqis, will pay less heed to what Obama tells them?

That would be a mistake. Ironically enough, given Republican gains, it's possible the president will have as much leeway as he wants on issues such as Afghanistan, which involve the use of force. There were more doubts on the Democratic side than on the Republican side about the stepped-up war in Afghanistan. So it seems to me, if the president wants to, for example, extend the U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond December 2011 [when all troops are supposed to leave], he would probably have considerable congressional support. If he wants to make only modest reductions in Afghanistan come this July [he has pledged to begin drawing down troops in July 2011], he will probably have considerable congressional support. You can probably argue that Republican gains in both the Senate and the House, at a minimum, have given the president leeway and possibly have strengthened his hand when it comes to "getting tough" or "staying the course," militarily.

Obama has pending before the Senate the new START agreement. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved it. Any likelihood it'll come up for ratification?

Ultimately yes, but my own view is the election slows and complicates the process. The greater number of Republicans now in the Senate will want to spend a little more time looking at it. It increases the odds that people will want to have various types of understandings attached to it, which may or may not require any renegotiation. All things being equal, I don't think it will torpedo the agreement, but I do think it will slow it down and complicate its passage. Where the politics will have a greater effect would probably be on other nuclear-related issues. For example, it would be extraordinarily hard, if not impossible, to resurrect, say, a comprehensive test ban treaty.

What about Bush administration's foreign trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia?

Not to mention the global trade talks, the so-called Doha round.

And he's going to South Korea for the G20 meeting.

The election will probably help somewhat in the sense that there are fewer Democrats in the House, who have historically been quite critical of free trade, if not anti-trade. And Republicans have historically been pro-free trade. The question to ask, and I don't have the answer yet, is whether this new group of Republicans shares that. A lot of the Republicans coming in are not necessarily what you might call traditional Republicans. Yes, you have a Rob Portman, the former U.S. trade representative, getting elected as a senator from Ohio. He will represent a pro-free trade orientation. But I don't assume that every new Republican getting elected is pro-free trade, particularly given the political context, where trade is carrying a lot of baggage. This could emerge as an area of some bipartisanship, whether it's an anti-China policy, such as Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and others have been advocating from the Democratic left, or you could have a very tough approach on trade, given a hypersensitivity to jobs and the perception--which I think is wrong--that trade is somehow responsible for many of our economic problems.

The Israeli press has been looking to see whether the election means a change in the Middle East negotiations.

Negotiations tend to be an area where presidents have extraordinary latitude within our Constitution and political system. So whereas the balance in the Congress may become more "pro-Israel," slightly more sympathetic to a Netanyahu government, the fact is that if tomorrow the president wants to introduce some new initiative vis-avis the Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, he can. Congress tends not to have much impact in areas that are not grounded in either spending or treaties or appointments. My sense is the president retains considerable latitude when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking or what he does vis-a-vis North Korea or tightening sanctions toward Iran.

Where he doesn't enjoy latitude, and which for all intents and purposes is on the backburner, is climate change. Getting cap and trade or a carbon tax is not going to happen, and probably the only way in the near future to affect issues in the realm of climate change would be through the backdoor of energy policy. It may be possible to get some bipartisan support for doing certain things that would reduce certain kinds of energy use, or will promote certain types of investment in alternatives that may have an indirect effect on climate change, but I don't think you're going to see the Congress go back to where it was a year or two ago.

The press has paid a lot of attention to the Tea Party. But now that Christine O'Donnell lost in Delaware, along with some of the more egregious Tea Party people, I guess that fascination will be short-lived.

The Tea Party is misnamed. It's closer to a movement, so the real question is: To what extent will its instincts or impulses influence or be adopted by one of the other parties. It's too soon to count it out. We'll know more over the next two years, when Tea Party activists push certain positions. It'll be interesting to see what the consequences are either for the congressional races in 2012 or the presidential sweepstakes. It's too soon to be writing the obituary or to even have a confident take on what's the long-term impact of the Tea Party.

"Congress tends not to have much impact in areas that are not grounded in either spending or treaties or appointments. My sense is the president retains considerable latitude when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking or what he does vis-a-vis North Korea or tightening sanctions toward Iran."

How do you regard Obama's prestige in this country? Numbers-wise, he took a hit.

He's taken a hit, and the swing here is larger than what you may call the historical norm away from the incumbent. Plus, perhaps more important, the problems or issues that led to this result haven't gone away and are not going away. We're going to face chronic high unemployment and chronic sluggish growth. That has to be the real concern for the Democrats, given that a disproportionate number of Democrats in the Senate are up for reelection in two years, and given the presidential race in 2012.

I would expect many Republicans are confident that they will be able to keep control of the House and gain control of the Senate in two years, and that they have a good shot, or at least a decent shot, at capturing the White House, as well. One of the interesting questions, given the prevalence of that perception on the Republican side, is: How do the Republicans approach the next two years? My crystal ball is no better than yours, and my crystal ball is also not particularly good at predicting how the president will approach the next two years.

Let me give you one question: How does [Obama] react to the December 1 report of the Deficit Commission? To what extent does he make the issue of the American deficit and debt a centerpiece of the next two years and the run-up to 2012? The answer to that question will be consequential, not just for American politics, but for this country's future. I actually believe the greatest--not just economic--but national security question hovering over the United States is whether and how we tackle our deficit and our accumulative debt in the next few years.

He has a review of the Afghan policy in December, which is really, I guess, whether they should continue with the July 2011 drawdown.

The real question is whether any drawdown is token or significant. There will be a drawdown come July, but there is a difference whether it's two thousand troops or twenty thousand troops. It's also a big difference whether you say, "We're going to take this initial drawdown now," however small it might be, and whether there's any indications about the path from there on. This election gives the president considerable space to choose whatever policy he wants, particularly if he wants to minimize or limit any drawdown. It seems to me that the Republicans are unlikely to criticize him for doing too much in Afghanistan. He would probably be criticized more if he were judged to be doing too little.

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