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Obama Isn’t “Unbound”

Peter Beinart interprets the Rice and Power choices as further proof that Obama is now “unbound” by domestic political constraints:

Since the election, it’s been more Obama unbound. He’s appointed a wildly controversial defense secretary who has talked bluntly about his determination to keep America out of future wars. Then, late last month, he gave a speech vowing to close Guantanamo Bay and declaring the “war on terror” over. Now he’s appointing Rice. It’s quite a change.

Many Republicans were afraid that a re-elected Obama would be “unleashed” in much the same way, but for them this mostly concerned what they feared Obama might do domestically. The trouble with this idea and with Beinart’s “Obama unbound” thesis is that second-term presidents don’t usually govern this way, and there is frankly not much evidence that Obama is breaking with that pattern. I thought the Hagel and Kerry appointments were reasonably good ones, but substantively they don’t represent that much of a change from a first term with Gates and Clinton. Instead of having a realist-minded Defense Secretary that served in Republican administrations, Obama now has a realist-minded former Republican Senator in that position. Instead of a generally hawkish former Democratic Senator at State, Obama now has a generally hawkish former Democratic Senator. I suppose it’s true that Hagel, Rice, et al. annoy most Republicans more than Gates, Clinton, and the rest, but I’m not sure that this is proof that Obama is “unbound” in what he wants to do on foreign policy. If Republicans are more annoyed with Obama’s appointees now than they were four years ago, that is mostly a measure of how tired of Obama they are and how frustrated they are that he was re-elected when most of them assume he should have lost.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama intends to dedicated his second term to focusing on domestic issues, and that seems right, so it seems implausible that he will expend a lot of time and energy on major foreign policy initiatives in the next three and a half years. Republican and liberal hawks find this deplorable, and just about everyone else assumes that this is what Obama was re-elected to do. I suppose Obama could surprise everyone by pursuing what Beinart calls a “big, controversial foreign policy initiative,” but it seems much more likely that he will want to consolidate his “legacy” with an effort to pass some sort of major legislation on a high-profile domestic issue. Whether there will be enough votes in either chamber to make that happen is uncertain, but in all likelihood Democratic numbers will be reduced after 2014, which gives the administration a small window to get something passed this year. Even if there are not large Democratic losses in the midterms, there will not be enough Republican support for the kind of immigration bill that he would be willing to sign. Obama has more flexibility and freedom of action on foreign policy than he does at home, but he is arguably more constrained from “big, controversial” actions now than he was in his first term, and one of the things constraining him is his own apparent desire not to get pulled into “big, controversial” foreign policy issues.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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