Home > Applying Political Science, International Relations > Are There Two Presidencies?

Are There Two Presidencies?

President Barack Obama meets with former Presi...

Image via Wikipedia

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.

  1. Hillary
    October 25, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Obama could bring world peace and the Republicans would find a problem with how he arrived at that result

  2. Mitchell
    October 25, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Obama is more conservative than George W. Bush on foreign policy, which I was quite surprised about, but with the political spectrum constantly moving further and further to the right, it honestly doesn’t matter what Obama does anymore. With the economy in the state its in I don’t see his foreign policy accomplishments helping him much. It’s not that voters disapprove of Obama’s foreign policy, but that it doesn’t change their mind about his domestic policies, which they care about much more.

  3. Hannah
    October 26, 2011 at 9:06 am

    I think that even though all of obama’s success with foreign policy is great and all, but most people are concerned with our economic situation. And until he can improve that, I think he is going to still have little support.

  4. Sarah B.
    October 26, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    I agree with Hannah and Mitchell. Obama might be doing great with his foreign policy, but right now domestic problems need to be focused on for the sake of the people and the economy. He won’t have much support because of the little time he has put in towards the economy and unemployment rate.

  5. Yesenia Gutierrez
    October 27, 2011 at 5:30 am

    Obama has put time into the economy but the results are labeled as ineffective. It is the immediate change that we as people expect that influences our opinion of just how effectively the president is doing his job, not necessarily the job that the president is doing. Obama has had success in foreign policy and should be commended for it, although like Professor Klunk said it might not be worth much because of the amount of success that he has had. With people now looking to the internal situation, Obama is at a disadvantage which I find interesting because Obama focused more on what he could do(foreign policy) while still focusing on what he could effect(domestic policy) although domestic policy is what people care about the most. The question I have is how does he win in a situation like this? Furthermore, how does anyone win?

  6. Jennifer L.
    October 27, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    domestic problems are more important right now then foreign policy however if foreign policy can some how help with domestic problems and obama can prove that it can then foreign policy would be ok at this moment

  7. Jocelyn
    October 27, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    I believe Obama is doing what he sees fit to try and fix the economy problem that we have, I just think it’s taking longer that what he and other supporters of his may have anticipated. I think the economy will have a turnaround before the next election in 2012.

  8. Lauren Barrera
    October 27, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Although Obama has had success with foreign policy, unfortunately as others have stated, those successes will not be on the minds of voters come 2012. Voters are much more concerned with domestic policies, and President Obama will have to address these issues more directly if he wants an opportunity at re-election. The article states that “in governing, there may frequently be two presidencies. At the ballot box, just one.” I believe this is true- although throughout Obama’s presidency he concerned himself very much with foreign policy, along with domestic issues, at the ballot box only his response to domestic policies will matter.

  9. Richard Munoz
    October 27, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Over the last two years, I’ve seen it as a great irony that President Obama has proven himself to be one of the most competent modern presidents in regards to foreign policy, yet so unsure and shaky domestically.

  10. daniel kemether
    October 27, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    studies have shown people are less effected by what happens outside their nation in poor economic times. Americans want to see changes in America first, and therefore Obama wont get any praise until he starts to make changes in American domestic politics.

  11. Samuel Park
    October 27, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    Obamas promise to make the economy better has taken a while so people still feel that nothing has been done. Obama needs to continue to make new plan to turn the economy around.

  12. Emma Fonseca
    October 27, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    There is always going to be people against Obama and just because he can prove right in some areas like foreign policy, does not mean he can successfully improve the economy. Unless he can swing the economy more positively before the campaign next year, he is screwed in that category and won’t be gaining any followers.

  13. Brishonn
    October 27, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    I believe President Obama is for the people. I believe he is doing what he can to fix the economy and job rate problem. I also believe, he will get a second term….

  14. Chris
    November 2, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    I feel that President Obama is doing a great job as leader of this country. I think that people do not realize the situation he came into and the amount of time it takes to turnaround this economy. I believe that Obama will be reelected because he has made some good accomplishments.

  15. Neil S.
    December 8, 2011 at 12:26 am

    I think that Obama has done a decent job considering the mess he inherited, domestically and abroad.

  1. January 29, 2014 at 4:56 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: