Governing, as President-elect Obama is undoubtedly discovering, is different from campaigning. The issues suddenly appear more complex, the solutions less obvious, and the political players are less easily identified as either supporters or opponents. Governing does not mean the end of politics, but the political process becomes exceedingly more complicated, in large part because it is a repeated game in which the president’s choice on any single issue must be considered in light of its probable impact on other, many as yet unknown, decisions.
To illustrate, consider Obama’s stance on the Iraq war. More than any other issue, it was his opposition to this war, beginning with his claim that he would have opposed the resolution authoring military force in Iraq, which brought him the support of the netroots and the Democratic left that proved so crucial to his election. Even before that, as a member of the Senate beginning in 2007, he introduced legislation that would have removed all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by March 2008. Having declared his candidacy for presidency, however, and in light of the evidence that the troop “surge” which he opposed was contributing to growing stability in Iraq, Obama modified his position, if not his underlying principles, by embracing a plan to remove all combat troops from Iraq within a 16-month period, or by mid-2010. When he showed signs of modifying that pledge during the campaign, McCain accused him of “flip-flopping”, at which point Obama reiterated his initial pledge to support the 16-month timetable. He stuck to this pledge even after meeting with General Petraeus, the author of the surge strategy, who opposed the Obama timetable. The AP report of Obama’s meeting with Petraeus stated, “Noting that the job of president and that of Gen. David Petraeus were different, Obama said he was setting ‘a strategic vision of what’s best for U.S. national security’ that he believes must include a mid-2010 target for removing American combat forces.”
Now that he is president, however, he inherits a status of force agreement negotiated by the Bush administration that, on its face, differs from the Obama campaign pledge. The Bush-negotiated agreement, which was recently ratified by the Iraqi parliament on the eve of the expiration of the U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S. presence in Iraq, allows U.S. military forces to remain in Iraq until the start of 2012, although under gradually tighter restrictions, including the removal of US combat troops from urban areas beginning next June.
From Obama’s perspective, however, this much is clear: the agreement continues the U.S. military presence for up to three more years, or more than 1 ½ years longer than what Obama promised on the campaign trail. As such, it is sure to add more fuel to the fire started by the netroots on the left who are convinced that Obama has backed away from his campaign pledge to be an agent of change. As one of the netroots argued in reaction to the news about the status of force agreement: “Why should Obama obey it? To honor the good word of George W Bush to his puppet government? I don’t get it.” Note that the agreement is still subject to a nationwide referendum next summer. And much of the implementing details are still to be worked out. Nonetheless, it will fall to Obama, as president, to oversee the implementation or modification of this agreement from the U.S. side. Certainly he will be asked about it during the transition period. As a result, he faces some decisions. Should he:
- Stick to his campaign pledge by having the Democratic majority in Congress renegotiate the status in force agreement to reduce the American occupation to no more than 16 months, effectively removing all U.S. combat troops by June 30, 2010, rather than December, 2011. Remember, Obama has argued that it is wrong for Bush to negotiate a status of force agreement that must be ratified by the Iraqi parliament, without also asking congressional approval, particularly an agreement that involves the use of military force. So he can justify his decision to bring this to Congress. His rallying cry should be, “I wasn’t elected to continue four more years of the failed Bush-Cheney policies, but instead to bring change to Washington.” By renegotiating the agreement to bring it in line with his campaign pledge, he gains the added benefit of mollifying the netroots on the Left who have grown increasingly suspicious of his ideological leanings.
- Buy some time by claiming that, although he opposes the Bush-Cheney policy, he will not, once in office, act in haste to revoke the agreement until he has time to consult with members of his foreign policy team. One of his first actions as president will be to send members of that team to Iraq, to assess the situation in consultation with our military on the ground there. Any decision in Iraq must be made in the context of our overall strategy for fighting global terror, which will also necessitate lengthy conversations with our allies. Until this takes place it would be unwise to move too hastily to revoke or renegotiate the Iraq agreement. In the interim, Obama will hope that the declining civilian and military death toll and apparent growing stability in Iraq will continue, thus allowing him to bring troops home at an accelerated pace, even if the Bush agreement remains in place. Alternatively, the Iraqis might reject the agreement next summer through the referendum process, in which case Obama has political cover for bringing the troops home earlier.
- Claim victory by arguing that the Bush agreement, by laying out a timetable for troop withdrawal, is consistent “with the principles underlying my campaign pledge”, even if it allows U.S. troops to remain in Iraq “a while” longer. Note as well that for several years Bush resisted all efforts to adopt a timetable for withdrawal, and it was only after pressure from Obama during the campaign that the Bush administration finally reversed itself and signed the status of force agreement laying out the troop withdrawal guidelines. By accepting the status in force agreement, Obama also signals his willingness to work within the broader network of agreements that govern relations between foreign nations, in contrast to Bush’s penchant for acting unilaterally. Obama should then immediately shift the focus to Afghanistan, citing it as the main front in the war on terror. Let Iraq recede from the limelight, and quietly implement the Bush policy.
So, which will it be? Which would you recommend (or would you opt for something else, or a combination of these choices?) Obama must choose – even if that choice is to make no decision. He no longer has the luxury of basing his candidacy on ill-defined “change” – he is now the “decider-in-chief”. His Iraq withdrawal pledge was the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, but implementing it may look a lot different from the perspective as president than it did when running for office.
In thinking about the difference between campaigning and governing, I’m often reminded of the comment by the celebrated campaign strategist and Ragin’ Cajun James Carville who, in discussing how to implement health care reform at the start of the Clinton presidency in 1993, famously observed: “I now see this as real. When I do a campaign and f—k up, someone just loses. But if you f–k up, you f—k up the country.”