After 'shellacking,' can foreign policy be a bright spot for Obama?

The foreign policy front, including the issues of trade and arms control, could present opportunities for Obama to boost his standing with the US electorate. But pitfalls and challenges also loom.

By , Staff writer

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    President Obama gestures during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, on Nov. 3.
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The midterm elections this week were far and away about domestic economic concerns, but President Obama is likely to feel the impact of Tuesday’s Republican tide on a number of foreign-policy issues, ranging from trade to Afghanistan.

But foreign policy may also present a wounded president with a silver lining, some presidential analysts say.

Mr. Obama is going to have to present the American people with a standout success as he makes a case for reelection in 2012, they argue – and his room to maneuver such a feather into his cap is going to be wider on the international than on the domestic front.

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“Presidents always have more leeway in foreign policy than they do on the domestic agenda,” says Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to the first President Bush and President Ford and who remains a leading expert on international affairs. “This president may find his opportunities largely in the field of foreign policy because of his difficulties with the new Congress.”

An Obama who could present the American electorate with a breakthrough deal with Iran, or better yet a done Middle East peace deal that guarantees both Israel’s peace and security and a viable Palestinian state, could restore his stature with the US public.

But in the short term, Obama’s foreign-policy agenda may present almost as many pitfalls and opportunities for setbacks as does the domestic front, some foreign-policy analysts contend.

A list of Obama’s upcoming challenges includes:

The “new START” treaty and arms control. Obama has signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, but it still requires Senate ratification. Obama said in a cabinet meeting Thursday that he is “hopeful” the Senate will ratify the treaty in its lame-duck session, noting that arms control is “not a traditionally Democratic or Republican issue, but an issue of American national security.” Ratification requires a two-thirds vote, or 67 senators – a number Obama could presumably reach more easily in the current Senate than in the new one, where Republicans will pick up seats.

Foreign trade. This is one area where a more Republican Congress could potentially work to Obama’s favor, some congressional analysts say. The president favors final approval of three outstanding free-trade agreements – with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama – and more Republican votes in Congress could help him. The election is already prompting the White House to refocus foreign policy in terms of economic issues, other experts say. For example, jobs in India is sure to be a key topic of discussion when Obama visits that country as part of his 10-day trip to Asia, which starts Friday.

Afghanistan. Exit polls Tuesday confirmed the unpopularity of the war in Afghanistan, but they also suggested how low a priority it is for American voters. That presents Obama with a dilemma: to stick with his own party’s preference for getting out sooner or to rely on a more Republican Congress and stick with a conditions-based timetable. Many military analysts expect the president to ultimately go with the latter.

Foreign aid. The arrival in Congress of a new bloc broadly aligned with the tea party movement over the issue of federal spending could spell trouble for a wide range of development-assistance and humanitarian-aid programs – although cutting aid would barely dent the federal budget, budget analysts point out. Some Republicans are calling for a “friends” test to be applied to foreign-aid disbursements.

Complicating all these issues is postelection uncertainty about how a fortified Republican Party, inside Congress and out, is going to choose to deal with a weakened Democratic president – one they hope to unseat in just two years.

“I would expect many Republicans are confident that they will be able to keep control of the House and gain control of the Senate in two years, and that they have a good shot, or at least a decent shot, at capturing the White House, as well,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a Q-and-A posted on the CFR website. “One of the interesting questions, given the prevalence of that perception on the Republican side, is: How do the Republicans approach the next two years?”

The Republicans will be busy sorting out their own internal divisions, given the arrival in their ranks of a large number of deficit hawks, on budget questions including those on military spending, some foreign-policy analysts say. They point to a newcomer like Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, who railed against foreign military operations and US overseas military bases in his campaign.

But other experts predict that Republicans will be focused together on denying Obama any kind of victory – foreign or domestic – that might boost his standing with the American electorate. As Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell told National Journal last week, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

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