U.S. warplanes are soaring above Libya. American experts are testing radiation levels below the ground in Japan. And President Obama is far removed from the presidential candidate who pledged to spend his time rebuilding the domestic economy and winding down foreign wars. He is learning the same lesson that all his predecessors did: Even with all the power, events can commandeer a presidency.
“Earthquakes occur. And protesters rise up. And it causes American foreign policy to be reconstructed and reset,” said Lee Hamilton, the longtime Democratic House member from Indiana who now heads the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “Presidents control the domestic agenda to a substantial degree; we debated health care last year because that was the president’s agenda. But they do not control the international agenda.”
At the White House and among congressional Democrats, this reality is the cause of deep frustration. For those on Capitol Hill, more than anything else, the president needs to persuade the country that jobs are the top priority. The White House has proclaimed repeatedly that Obama intends to make a “hard pivot” to the economy after having spent so much time on health care, and oil spills, and troop surges in Afghanistan. In January 2010, then-spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the president “planned to pivot” to what Obama called “a sustained and relentless focus” on jobs. Eleven months later, the president told reporters, “We now have to pivot and focus on jobs and growth.”
Each promise was overtaken by events that pushed themselves to the top of the White House agenda. That has been particularly true in the last month. This time, officials planned to use the president’s just-concluded Latin American trip to highlight U.S. exports and jobs. Instead, an earthquake wrecked Japan, and Western powers went to war in Libya.
Leaders are sometimes flayed for staying on message, but Obama must still change the subject.
Libya may turn out to be little more than a blip in the 2012 campaign. But history is full of blips that lured presidents away from their plans, dragooned them into quagmires, and sapped their popularity. In 1968, the battle between guns and butter sank Lyndon Johnson so deeply into Vietnam that he decided not to seek reelection. “I knew from the start,” he wrote later, that “if I left a woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to fight that bitch of a war in Vietnam, then I would lose everything at home.”
It also vexed Harry Truman, who in 1952 declined to run again after failing to achieve a decisive victory in Korea. Franklin Roosevelt observed of his presidency, “Dr. Win the War replaced Dr. New Deal.” Woodrow Wilson presciently told a friend before his inauguration, “It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign problems, for all my preparation has been in domestic matters.” And even Abraham Lincoln worried about his reelection in 1864 until Gens. Grant and Sherman began their march through the South, allowing him to conclude the war and address himself to Reconstruction.
Another problem is that distractions, particularly wars, make it harder to advance a domestic agenda, because they drain the Treasury and force presidents to scale back their ambitions. “In the past, when there have been substantial military engagements, it has deterred presidents from achieving their domestic-reform agendas,” historian Robert Dallek said, citing Wilson, FDR, Truman, and Johnson.
Obama is not in straits as dire as those presidents faced. But the cumulative costs of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya clearly has diverted funds from his priorities. And no one knows the ultimate cost. Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., warns that Libya will be a very expensive operation. “We argue over where to cut $100 million here and there from programs many people like. So here comes an open-ended military action with no endgame envisioned,” he complained in a statement.
Meanwhile, leaders are sometimes flayed for staying on message despite world events. Bush was walloped for failing to take Hurricane Katrina seriously, even as New Orleans drowned, and critics are hammering Obama for a sluggish response to Libya. But the White House must still try to change the subject back to the economy, Hamilton argued. “They have to keep insisting on it,” he said. “Because that’s where the people are. The amazing thing on the foreign-policy questions in the election—and since—is how little attention the American people pay to it.”
If Democrats are to succeed in 2012, the president must push through the Libya crisis and find a way to stress the economy, even if he has failed before—and will fail again—at controlling the policy agenda. Maybe this time, though, he won’t talk about a “pivot.”
This article appears in the March 26, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.