Now, freed from having to seek reelection and having broken the GOP’s decades-old advantage on foreign affairs, Obama has the chance to finally make good on the promise of foreign-policy boldness on which he ran in 2008, if he surrounds himself with the right people.
Beinart is so busy explaining why Rice is insufficiently “controversial” in her foreign policy views that he forgets to make the case that Obama would conduct a “bold” foreign policy once he has “the right people” around him. There are better and worse Cabinet appointments that Obama can make, but there’s not much reason to think that there are many available alternatives to Rice that would qualify as “the right people.” If Rice isn’t sufficiently “controversial” for Beinart’s taste, what likely appointee would be? Kerry would probably be a better Secretary of State (and definitely easier to confirm), but he has a record that is every bit as conventional as Rice’s. When it comes to the Iraq war, it is famously so.
In order for Obama to embrace foreign policy “boldness” in his second term, he would have to want to do that. Beinart is exaggerating the “promise” in 2008 in order to create the impression that there is a “bold” and “controversial” Obama foreign policy just waiting to be revealed. The departure from the foreign policy consensus that so many Obama supporters hoped for was never one that Obama intended to pursue. Everything in Obama’s record except for his opposition to the Iraq war suggests that he has also been fairly conventional in his foreign policy views all along, and the last four years have mostly confirmed that. Beinart says that “Obama reconciled with the establishment he had run against” once in office, but on most foreign policy issues Obama didn’t disagree with “the establishment” and had no need to be reconciled with them. Except for the Iraq war, Obama didn’t have very many significant disagreements with his main Democratic rivals in 2008.
Beinart also makes a mistake similar to the one that many movement conservatives made before the election when they feared that Obama would be “unleashed” following his re-election. Instead of fearing this, Beinart is hopeful that Obama will be “unleashed” to pursue a foreign policy that would presumably be more satisfactory to progressives in his party, but that isn’t likely to happen. The experience of most presidential second terms suggests that Obama’s foreign policy will remain largely unchanged or become even more “centrist” and conventional than it has been.
Far from becoming more aggressively ideological or responsive to the demands of core supporters, the pattern has been for second-term presidents to scale back their ambitions and accept the existing bipartisan consensus rather than seeking to challenge it. Even though “lame-duck” second-term presidents often turn to foreign policy, it is rare for them to be “bold” in a way that pleases their core supporters. No matter who ends up as the nominee for Secretary of State, Obama’s foreign policy will almost certainly continue to be the conventional liberal internationalist one that it has been, because that is what Obama and many others in his party want it to be.