<em>Guest Post by Ben Katcher</em>: Domestic or Foreign Policy Agenda Setting?


Ben Katcher is a Program Associate with the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program.
obama_mccain2.jpgAt the Center for a New American Security “Pivot Point: New Directions for American Security” conference Wednesday, the question was raised of whether the next president is likely to invest his political capital in the domestic or the international sphere.
It is clear from McCain’s lack of domestic policy proposals, his record in the Senate, and the way in which he has run his campaign, that as President he would spend his time and resources on international affairs. The question of where a President Obama would spend his capital is trickier.
The political climate favors focusing on domestic issues. This is due to both the current president’s excessive emphasis on foreign policy and the inevitable focus on the economy that accompanies a recession. Indeed, a recent poll indicates that a full two-thirds of Americans think that the economy is an extremely important issue, while fewer than one half of Americans attach extreme importance to Iraq.
That said, the next president will inherit two hot wars, an enormously complex and important change in the Asian balance of power, and an international community starved for proactive, positive American engagement. But with the consequences of a diminished American primacy more distant and less palpable to most Americans, pocketbook issues will likely prevail in guiding the agenda after the election.
As J.W. Kingdon’s Streams Model shows, the policy-making process involves the complex interplay of ideas, specific challenges, and the prevailing political context. In particular, the decision of where to invest political capital results from a combination of domestic politics, a president’s personal inclinations, and how events unfold.
President Clinton tilted toward domestic policy for all three reasons: the Democratic Party is traditionally stronger on domestic issues, the end of the Cold War seemed to provide an opportunity to address domestic challenges, and President Clinton was personally most interested in domestic issues.
President Bush successfully managed a turbulent transition in international affairs with the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of the Cold War, and the first Gulf War. But his neglect for domestic issues ultimately played into the hands of Clinton’s “It’s the Economy, Stupid” campaign.
President Reagan was a rare president who was able to implement both a domestic and a foreign policy agenda. This can be attributed to his immense political popularity as well his ability to articulate solutions to both the Cold War and the nation’s economic woes that resonated with the American people.
The case of the current president demonstrates the importance that events play in shaping the focus of a president’s term. While Bush will certainly be remembered as a foreign policy president, this was not necessarily his intention when he took office. Grover Norquist reminds us that Bush’s campaign speeches called for a humble approach to foreign policy in which America would lead by example rather than by empire. Furthermore, as Steve Clemons has argued, the events of September 11 allowed hardliners within his administration to win his “foreign policy soul.”
Matt Yglesias has suggested, Obama won the nomination in large part due to his opposition to the Iraq war and his call for diplomatic engagement with dictators, which allowed him to differentiate himself from Hilary Clinton. The issue most likely to compel Obama to focus on foreign policy is Iran – whether it is an escalation of hostilities, a decision to pursue a more robust diplomatic course, or the crossing of a nuclear red line.
Nevertheless, the criteria laid out above suggest that after an election, a President Obama would likely to tack back to domestic issues where he is stronger politically and where his background as a community organizer suggests that his passion lies.
— Ben Katcher


11 comments on “<em>Guest Post by Ben Katcher</em>: Domestic or Foreign Policy Agenda Setting?

  1. Paul Norheim says:

    “In case my meaning isn’t clear, rapid retreat from playing the hegemon IS an active foreign policy. Why the hell shouldn’t the rest of the “civilized”, “western” world do the worrying about Iran? Is there something that says that if the US doesn’t protect the world (or is it Israel), no one will? Are Americans so damn precious that only we really know what’s best for the world going forward?”
    Amen, DonS.


  2. Cullen Schwarz says:

    What a well-written and thought provoking article. I would welcome more guest posts from Mr. Katcher.


  3. DonS says:

    Walk and chew gum indeed.
    While nice to ponder the streams of domestic and foreign policy, it is a luxury appropriate to the wonks.
    The United States is so out of balance that going full steam to address domestic chaos, while puling back from the swaggering, expensive, foreign policiy misadventures that Bush seeks to push under the rug, seem imperative. Oh, we can keep pretending that we are holding this country together with chewing gum and duct tape — which isn’t far from the truth — but that’s assuming is ok to slip further into social and economnic division and inequality.
    In case my meaning isn’t clear, rapid retreat from playing the hegemon IS an active foreign policy. Why the hell shouldn’t the rest of the “civilized”, “western” world do the worrying about Iran? Is there something that says that if the US doesn’t protect the world (or is it Israel), no one will? Are Americans so damn precious that only we really know what’s best for the world going forward?
    I don’t think that’s the feedback we’ve been getting from all but the diminishing sycophants among our “friends” . . . and ememies.
    To repeat, polcy wonks are wasting time if they don’t point out the interrelation between foreign policy excess and domestic disintegration. But as has already been pointed out, foreign policy is cynically used as a distraction from woes at home. Just like cheap beer, only its not cheap.


  4. JohnH says:

    I can’t remember the expression exactly, but when the Brazilian military took over in the 1960’s they made politics dirty but loosened up on sexual restrictions. Politicians have ways to take people’s minds off their difficulties besides creating foreign bogeymen.


  5. Don Bacon says:

    Presidents tend to focus on foreign affairs, particularly on manufacturing enemies and then fighting them, because doing so unifies the electorate and gets the citizens’ minds off of their domestic difficulties, which are considerable and difficult to solve. Cheap beer and sports are also effective in this regard.


  6. Poems About Barack says:

    Two Poems by the Author and Poet, Stephen Crane for Your Enjoyment
    Ball of Gold (1895)
    A man saw a ball of gold in the sky;
    He climbed for it,
    And eventually he achieved it —
    It was clay.
    Now this is the strange part:
    When the man went to the earth
    And looked again,
    Lo, there was the ball of gold.
    Now this is the strange part:
    It was a ball of gold.
    Aye, by the heavens, it was a ball of gold.
    A Learned Man Came to Me Once (1895)
    A learned man came to me once.
    He said, “I know the way, — come.”
    And I was overjoyed at this.
    Together we hastened.
    Soon, too soon, were we
    Where my eyes were useless,
    And I knew not the ways of my feet.
    I clung to the hand of my friend;
    But at last he cried, “I am lost.”


  7. weldon berger says:

    Will the next president walk or chew gum?
    Bush the first had a patrician disregard for domestic issues, just as his son views them strictly through the prism of what’s good for people like him and his family and friends. I see no reason whatsoever why a president with competent cabinet secretaries can’t do a credible job on both fronts if the desire to do so is there.


  8. JohnH says:

    A further note: once out of control defense spending is reigned in and the budget balanced, any surplus generated by letting Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy lapse could be applied to fixing healthcare and making America more energy efficient–high speed rail instead of airplances, etc., etc.


  9. JohnH says:

    The next President has little choice if he wants to be successful: he will of necessity have to focus on restoring the health of the American economy. This begins with addressing the massive structural imbalances caused by the Bush administration: enormous trade deficits and huge federal budget deficits financed by foreign debt.
    The cure to the financial hemorrhaging starts with putting a stop to out of control defense spending. Since 2001 there has been a $400 Billion increase in spending on “Defense,” Homeland Security, and “emergency” appropriations for GWOT. By comparison, all other discretionary expenses have risen only about $66 Billion since 2001, which is below the rate of inflation. Eliminating the increase in “Security Spending” would still leave America with the world’s biggest military by far. The benefits would be enormous: a balanced budget and elimination of the government’s need to borrow from China to finance operations. The only way to reduce security spending is to scale back the global commitments, including the two wars.
    So, somewhat circuitously, the next President must first get foreign policy right as the unavoidable prerequisite to getting the American economy right.
    McCain is truly clueless. Obama is making the right noises, but I’m not sure that he fully realizes the enormous battle that will have to be waged to scale back America’s security commitments so as to begin to adress America’s economic problems.


  10. Mr.Murder says:

    Obama won the nomination? Did theyr educe the number of delegates neded to win?
    They’re ignoring primaries for red state caucuses?
    Talk about moving the goalposts….
    Say, the DNC is now HQ’d in Chicago, that’s quite a move.


  11. Linda says:

    The president has to do both. In the past 24 hours, two breaking news stories, one big and one much smaller, are very relevant. The big story is the Supreme Court habeas corpus/Gitmo decision which McCain opposes and Obama accepts. The other is the new Pew international poll about how much excitement and interest Obama’s nomination generates around the world.
    I would add that even on women’s issues internationally we should return to funding family planning programs in developing countries that include all full range of family planning services.
    http://www.ppaction.org/campaign/knowmccain?qp_source=knowmccain%5fmoe This video from Planned Parenthood deals only with domestic policy differences.


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