Why Obama Has Room to Maneuver on Iran

A war-weary public is willing to cut the president some slack on diplomatic initiatives. But it’s not willing to do so on his domestic priorities.

President Obama waves off a question from the media during a meeting with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office, September 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama was meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister to discuss the situation in Syria and Iran. 
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Nov. 29, 2013, midnight

The top do­mest­ic and for­eign policy pri­or­it­ies likely to dom­in­ate the re­mainder of Pres­id­ent Obama’s term un­der­score how much the choices of even the world’s most power­ful per­son are shaped by the con­di­tions he in­her­its.

The polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment Obama in­her­ited on for­eign policy is ex­pand­ing his run­ning room as he pur­sues a nuc­le­ar-dis­arm­a­ment deal with Ir­an, now his top in­ter­na­tion­al pri­or­ity. Con­versely, the do­mest­ic polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment that greeted Obama — and his fail­ure to re­shape it through his first term or reelec­tion — has nar­rowed his mar­gin of er­ror for steady­ing his be­lea­guered health re­form law, his top pri­or­ity at home.

Obama has room to man­euver on the nuc­le­ar ini­ti­at­ive not be­cause Amer­ic­ans trust the new Ir­a­ni­an gov­ern­ment, or the pres­id­ent’s dip­lo­mat­ic skills, or are par­tic­u­larly con­fid­ent that dip­lomacy will suc­ceed. Obama’s ad­vant­age, rather, is that the al­tern­at­ive has been dis­cred­ited. Amid wide­spread dis­il­lu­sion­ment over the Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tions in Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq, Obama is be­ne­fit­ing from the shattered pub­lic be­lief that Amer­ic­an force can pa­ci­fy the Middle East.

That’s the key new ele­ment in a de­bate that oth­er­wise settled quickly in­to fa­mil­i­ar grooves after the agree­ment last week­end with Ir­an to curb its nuc­le­ar pro­gram in re­turn for a tem­por­ary re­lax­a­tion in eco­nom­ic sanc­tions. Since the U.S. and five oth­er powers con­cluded the deal with Ir­an, con­ser­vat­ive crit­ics have be­sieged Obama with ac­cus­a­tions that he is na­ive and weak, com­plete with the in­ev­it­able ref­er­ences to Mu­nich and ap­pease­ment of Nazi Ger­many be­fore World War II. Plenty of con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats, plus key Mideast al­lies such as Saudi Ar­a­bia and Is­rael, are leery (if not openly hos­tile), too.

Obama can’t ig­nore this cross­fire. But the odds re­main high that he can con­tain it and ad­vance ne­go­ti­ations long enough to test wheth­er Ir­an is genu­inely will­ing to shelve its nuc­le­ar pro­gram (a ques­tion that re­mains very much un­answered as longer-term talks be­gin). The fail­ure of George W. Bush’s at­tempt to trans­form the Middle East through Amer­ic­an-led force has provided Obama more lee­way to pur­sue an ap­proach more mod­est in both means and ends: dip­lomacy that aims, in a fash­ion George Ken­nan would re­cog­nize, more to avoid the worst out­comes with Ir­an than to achieve the ideal.

While polls show that Amer­ic­ans would ul­ti­mately use force to pre­vent Ir­an from ac­quir­ing nuc­le­ar weapons, the bi­par­tis­an con­gres­sion­al and pub­lic re­coil against mil­it­ary ac­tion in Syr­ia this fall prob­ably of­fers a more re­veal­ing pic­ture of the na­tion’s mood after Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq. “I think from the pub­lic’s stand­point, we are back to where we were in the mid-1970s [after Vi­et­nam],” said Bill Gal­ston, a seni­or fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tute. “That skep­ti­cism about over­seas in­volve­ment in gen­er­al and mil­it­ary in­volve­ment in par­tic­u­lar is go­ing to last for some years now.” And that means most Amer­ic­ans are likely to give Obama a long rope on dip­lomacy be­fore they con­clude force is the only op­tion left for de­ter­ring Ir­an.

If the pub­lic mood Obama in­her­ited has broadened his op­por­tun­it­ies in Ir­an, it has con­strained him on health care. From the start, the de­bate over the health care law has un­fol­ded in an at­mo­sphere of per­vas­ive skep­ti­cism about gov­ern­ment. When Lyn­don John­son passed Medi­care in 1965, more than three-fifths of Amer­ic­ans said they trus­ted Wash­ing­ton to usu­ally do the right thing; in the dec­ades since, scan­dal, war, and eco­nom­ic struggle stead­ily cor­roded that num­ber, to around one in four by the time Obama passed the health re­form law in 2010. (After three more years of eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion and polit­ic­al grid­lock, those num­bers have fallen still fur­ther.) That’s the sheer wall of skep­ti­cism, es­pe­cially among whites, that Obama must scale to build sup­port for ex­pand­ing gov­ern­ment’s role in health care.

Since tak­ing of­fice, Obama has made the case for act­iv­ist gov­ern­ment more ag­gress­ively than Bill Clin­ton did. But Obama nev­er for­mu­lated a clear strategy for re­build­ing trust in Wash­ing­ton. On the one hand, he didn’t fo­cus as much as Clin­ton did on re­forms (like work for wel­fare re­cip­i­ents or shrink­ing the fed­er­al work­force) that might re­as­sure skep­tic­al voters about gov­ern­ment’s ca­pa­city and ef­fi­ciency. On the oth­er, he (cor­rectly) dis­carded as polit­ic­ally un­real­ist­ic bright-line trans­form­at­ive ideas such as single-pay­er health care or break­ing up big banks. That vastly in­creased his chances of passing le­gis­la­tion but meant that even his suc­cesses (like health care and fin­an­cial re­form) pro­duced pro­grams of dizzy­ing in­tric­acy that re­quire gov­ern­ment to “thread the needle” between con­tend­ing in­terests, as Yale Uni­versity polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Steph­en Skowronek says. “You can’t mo­bil­ize around these things. They are just prob­lem-solv­ing.”

The health law’s dif­fi­culties show the vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies in­her­ent in such pre­cari­ously con­struc­ted en­ter­prises. Obama­care’s early struggles don’t guar­an­tee its col­lapse; it is already gain­ing mo­mentum in some key blue states. But the pro­gram’s troubles and com­plex­ity make it more likely to deep­en than dis­pel pub­lic doubts about Wash­ing­ton. With suc­cess in Ir­an, Obama could so­lid­i­fy a shift in pub­lic opin­ion (from force to dip­lomacy) already mov­ing to­ward him. But un­less he sta­bil­izes his health care plan, Obama will be­queath the next pres­id­ent even great­er sus­pi­cion of Wash­ing­ton than he in­her­ited.

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