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Health care outcome will define Obama
Presidents have lots of options for changing the subject and refocusing attention. But perceptions forged in the health care crucible will cling to Obama
Francis Wilkinson
Francis Wilkinson
S

late’s Fred Kaplan suggests that with President Obama facing headwinds on the domestic policy front, the likelihood increases that he “may turn into something he never wanted or expected to be: a foreign policy president.”

There’s a lot to recommend that, including the experiences of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The more domestic turbulence those presidents faced, the more they seemed to gravitate toward foreign affairs, where, as Kaplan writes, presidents are given more leeway “and thus more opportunity to display the qualities of executive leadership.”

The trouble for Obama is, his maneuverability in foreign affairs will depend significantly on perceptions of his management of domestic politics. Both Hillary Clinton and John McCain raised questions in 2008 about Obama’s capacity for dealing with foreign adversaries –his “toughness.” (Clinton’s famous “3:00 a.m. phone call” ad wasn’t a jab at Obama’s ability to respond to an earthquake in Haiti.)

Since his inauguration, Republicans have relentlessly pursued this line of attack, arguing that Obama is more concerned with being liked by adversaries than protecting the homeland from them. (This was an underlying theme of McCain’s most famous campaign ad – “Celebrity” — which compared Obama’s need for adulation to that of Paris Hilton.) The Cheney wing of the GOP may be the most vociferous in calling Obama “weak” on terror, on Iran, on missile defense and virtually everything else. But its treatment of Obama is hardly surprising; the refrain has been a standard Republican attack on Democrats for decades, requiring strategic management by every national Democrat in memory.

Similarly, the correlation between domestic prowess and foreign affairs leadership is not new; it is built into the presidency. The alarms of a red menace in post-World War II Washington, the claims that communists were secretly controlling the executive branch, were based on this reading of politics. If Truman was too weak to root communists out of his own government, how could he possibly protect Americans from the ruthless communist masters in Moscow?

Similarly, the knock-out blow to George W. Bush on Iraq, the one from which there was no hope of recovery, was his handling of Katrina. Democrats exploited the Katrina fiasco to the maximum, questioning how a president unable to handle winds and water within his own borders could competently manage a hellstorm in the Middle East. A domestic tragedy helped frame — quite possibly for all time -- Bush’s signature foreign initiative.

If Obama’s actions on the domestic front are perceived as “weak” – and an abandonment of his key domestic priority after decades of Democratic promises, including Obama’s own, on health care has already opened Obama to charges in that vein — the White House will dig itself a political hole on foreign policy and homeland security even as it tries to climb out of one on health care. “Weak” presidents are not given much leeway to display executive leadership — at home or abroad.

Given Obama’s posture of disdain for politics, the White House may be tempted to cast the whole health care debacle as a Congressional production, a sordid affair of wheeling and dealing, complete with tawdry compromises and backroom deals, that was ultimately beneath the president’s dignity and high intellectual standards. But when it comes to foreign affairs and especially to homeland security, few voters care how clean Obama’s hands are, and the image of a president who approaches domestic policy in white gloves will be readily applied to his foreign responsibilities. That’s life in the big leagues.

Obama may have no genuinely good option on health care; he may be damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. But turning his attention to foreign affairs (or bank regulation, for that matter) will offer him no escape. One way or another, perceptions forged in the health care crucible will follow him. And they will define him.

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