Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Foreign Policy and 2012

If you're interested in a good debate about Barack Obama's foreign and national security policy to date, I recommend an exchange between Stephen Walt, who believes Obama is doing badly; Marc Lynch, who grades less harshly; and then this post by Heather Hurlburt, who I think is even more positive

I'll pass on taking sides, but I do have to disagree with Walt's framing: he believes that (what he sees as) Obama's lack of foreign policy successes may hurt him in 2012.  He does acknowledge that the economy is more important, but then claims Obama will
be heading into 2012 without a major domestic or foreign policy achievement to run on. All that spells trouble for Democrats come 2012.
On the economy, the important thing to remember is that for better or worse, everything that's happened so far basically doesn't matter to Obama's reelection.  What seems to matter is economic growth (or, actually, income growth) during the election year.  It would be nice to believe that voters reward pols for long-term economic success, but the evidence says no.  (Oh, and domestic achievements?  That's silly; it's possible his domestic achievements will be unpopular, although my guess is that they'll be popular enough among swing voters that he'll have plenty to talk about.  He obviously has plenty of domestic achievements, and still has plenty of time for more). 

But as far as foreign policy achievements...it probably just doesn't matter.  When it comes to foreign affairs, we know that long drawn out wars tend to hurt presidents up for re-election -- so Obama should be careful to avoid casualties in Afghanistan (or elsewhere) in 2012 at the same level they're at now.  Beyond that, however, it's highly unlikely that any accomplishment could have any long-term affect on his approval ratings or his reelection.  Surely, a major policy disaster might hurt.  But what Walt is talking about -- the status quo in Iran, or a post-occupation Iraq hostile to the US and aligned with Iran -- isn't likely to affect swing voters at all.  Of course, it's terribly important...it's just not going to matter for Obama's reelection. 


  1. Winning wars doesn't do much for presidents politically, except in the very short term. George H. W. Bush famously lost re-election 21 months after his triumph in the desert. Barely a year after the Japanese surrender, Harry Truman saw the Democrats lose Congress. Voters were much more concerned with lingering scarcity caused by wartime controls, or by the labor unrest of the #1 strike year in history, than about their nation's greatest military triumph.

  2. Jones & McDermott have a book out on responsiveness with legislation and opinions and such. I phrase it so vaguely because it arrived today, and I haven't cracked it open, but that's what I think it's about, and it probably addresses somewhat the issue of punishment/reward for achievements.

    For what it's worth (very, very little), my diss found absosmurfly no effects of legislative productivity on individual or aggregate party vote shares for congressional elections. I skinned that cat many different ways, and pretty much got economic effects and that's it.

  3. But wasn't LBJ driven from office over Vietnam?

  4. Jonathan made it clear that "long drawn-out wars tend to hurt presidents up for re-election" -- and their parties, too -- as was the case for Democrats in 1952 and Republicans in 2006 and 2008. That seems to be the one area where foreign policy does matter in presidential elections. Foreign policy successes, not so much.

  5. In 1952 and 1968, the U.S. had suffered tens of thousands of fatalities in the respective military ventures. There's no evidence for less bloody conflicts impacting a presidential election, no matter how prolonged. Economic models did well in 2004 and 2008.

  6. Seems like a good, general rule is that outside of the economy, your policy initiatives are only marginal help if they work, and a giant albatross if they don't. Remember what Homer Simpsons said: trying is the first step toward failure.


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