Are There Two Presidencies?
In a recent post on the Foreign Policy site, Daniel Drezner (that’s right, the Theories of International Politics and Zombies guy) speculates about why so many Republicans have been unwilling to give the Obama administration much, if any, credit for foreign policy success. With the demise of Muammar Gaddafi, Drezner claims, “it becomes harder and harder to argue that Barack Obama’s foreign policy is a failure.”
Drezner, a professor at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University, wonders if Obama could turn his greater successes in foreign policy compared to other policy areas to his electoral advantage in 2012. Here he imagines an Obama speech in which the incumbent president asks voters to consider what he could accomplish in domestic and economic policy if only he had the same room to maneuver that he has in foreign policy.
As president, I have to address both domestic policy and foreign policy. Because of the way that the commander-in-chief role has evolved, I have far fewer political constraints on foreign policy action than domestic policy action. So let’s think about this for a second. On the foreign stage, America’s standing has returned from its post-Iraq low. Al Qaeda is now a shell of its former self. Liberalizing forces are making uneven but forward progress in North Africa. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime is no longer, without one American casualty. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down. Every country in the Pacific Rim without a Communist Party running things is trying to hug us closer.
Imagine what I could accomplish in domestic policy without the kind of obstructionism and filibustering that we’re seeing in Congress — which happens to be even more unpopular than I am, by the way. I’m not talking about the GOP abjectly surrendering, mind you, just doing routine things like sublecting my nominees to a floor vote in the Senate. I’ve achieved significant foreign policy successes while still cooperating with our allies in NATO and Northeast Asia. Just imagine what I could get done if the Republicans were as willing to compromise as, say, France
Drezner is resurrecting the “Two Presidencies Theory,” which was first presented in the 1960s by the legendary political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. According to this theory, presidents have more constitutional and statutory authority to make foreign policy decisions than they do in domestic policy areas. Other political actors, especially in Congress, may also show greater deference to the president when it comes to foreign policy. As a result, presidents may prefer to give more time and attention to foreign policy problems than to domestic issues where they are less able to make an impact. Some presidents, like Richard Nixon, come to office intending to concentrate on foreign policy and end up devoting even more of their presidencies to international affairs than they had intended. Others, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, show little interest in foreign policy but eventually come to increase their emphasis on international affairs.
The Two Presidencies thesis has been challenged from the moment it was first proposed. Some scholars found evidence that suggests that the theory is robustly supported. Others have claimed the demise of the two presidencies as Congress has become less deferential in the foreign policy area. Still others have suggested that the two presidencies theory only covers Republican presidents. And some claim that the two presidencies phenomenon continues to persist much as Wildavsky described almost fifty years ago.
Whatever is the case about the two presidencies, it is unlikely that President Obama will be able to turn his administration’s foreign policy successes to his advantage. To some extent, his own foreign policy successes may render foreign policy issues less salient for most voters in 2012. Winding down the U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya will leave the state of the economy the only important question for most.
On the other hand, Republicans will not likely enjoy the built-in advantage they have enjoyed with voters about foreign-policy questions since the end of World War II. The contenders for the Republican nomination, with the exception of Romney and Huntsman, have expressed little interest in foreign policy. And the Grand Old Party, which has mostly spoken with one voice about foreign policy questions, is fractured among neo-conservatives, isolationists, traditional realists and whatever foreign policy point of view Herman Cain expresses. Unfortunately for President Obama, this may not matter. President George H.W. Bush and Senator John McCain show us that foreign policy expertise and accomplishment are unlikely to save the day when voters are focused on economic worries.
In governing, there may frequently be two presidencies. At the ballot box, just one.
- Obama’s Military & Foreign Policy Successes: How Did He Do It? (themoderatevoice.com)
- The Untold Story Of The Actual Obama Record, Ctd (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)
- Howard Kurtz Asks If Media Too Slow To Give President Obama Credit For Muammar Gaddafi Killing (mediaite.com)
- Will Foreign Policy Wins Help in 2012? (foxnews.com)
- Obama’s foreign successes may help little in 2012 (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Romney: Obama’s handling of foreign policy has weakened our standing in the world (hotair.com)
- Paul Joins Obama Foreign Policy Pile-On (thepage.time.com)
- Jeff Becker
- Prof. Keith Smith
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