Conventional wisdom has it that second-term presidents inevitably concentrate on foreign policy because they can’t get much done on domestic policy. To judge by President Obama’s inaugural address yesterday, he’s not convinced that the pundits have it right.
Unlike George W. Bush, who devoted his second inaugural address eight years ago to arguing that “survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” Obama largely talked about creating a more perfect union at home. He warned that growing economic inequality threatens America’s promise. He hailed the country’s social safety net for enabling Americans “to take the risks that make this country great.” And he called for continuing the "journey” toward ensuring that all Americans enjoy equality under the law.
When Obama turned to foreign policy, he surprisingly led with the need to battle climate change. He campaigned in 2008 on ambitious plans to curb the emission of heat-trapping gases. Those efforts mostly fell by the wayside during the first term in the face of Republican opposition, and Obama seldom mentioned climate change during the 2012 campaign. With memories of Superstorm Sandy still fresh and the public worried about jobs, he apparently sees a political opening to jumpstart action. He portrayed efforts to develop sustainable energy as essential for avoiding catastrophic weather and ensuring America’s “economic vitality.”
Obama used the rest of his brief foreign policy remarks to make the case for the benefits of diplomacy—and to signal that his appetite for foreign interventions is low. While acknowledging the value of “strength of arms,” he warned against “perpetual war”—no doubt alluding to his plans to scale back America’s commitment in Afghanistan substantially. He pledged to strengthen “institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad” and to “show the courage” to resolve differences with others peacefully. And like virtually every president in living memory, he pledged his commitment to strengthening America’s alliances and to supporting democracy around the world.
Obama left it to his audience to speculate how these general observations might translate into specific foreign policy choices. Inaugural addresses are, after all, a time for broad themes rather than detailed programmatic agendas. But the president could find it difficult to follow his own advice. Enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for tackling the causes of climate change (as opposed to dealing with its consequences) remains low. His administration’s reliance on drone strikes in battling al-Qaeda suggests that perpetual war might be a reality, and budding crises in the East China and South China seas could test America’s strength of arms. Diplomacy requires having a willing diplomatic partner, something that might be absent on critical issues such as Iran and Syria. And it is easy to call for better institutions; it is hard to build them.
The hope implicit in Obama’s inaugural address is that world events will not force him to make tough foreign policy choices but rather give him the time to move forward with his domestic agenda. Perhaps they will. But even then, the basic reality of American politics remains unchanged from Obama’s first term: he faces a Republican Party adamantly opposed to much of what he hopes to accomplish at home, and with its control of the House of Representatives, fully capable of stopping legislation in its tracks.
So either way the pundits might have it right after all—Obama could be spending much more time on foreign policy during his second term than his second inaugural address suggests.