Tag Archives: Obama

Obama and the Iraq Withdrawal Campaign Pledge

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”


Putting Obama’s Victory in Historical Context

Was Obama’s victory a “transformative” moment in American politics?  It was, certainly, in terms of what it says about our ability to actually live up to one of our most cherished ideals: the notion that access to the White House is open to anyone, regardless of race.   It’s hard to overstate the significance of that!  In the immediate aftermath of the election, however, too many in the media are conflating the hugely important symbolic significance of Obama’s election with the belief that we have undergone a wholesale restructuring of the electoral landscape that opens the way for Democratic dominance of electoral politics for a generation to come.  I see few signs that anything of this significance has occurred.  Instead, the election results seem to reaffirm what one might call “normal” presidential politics.

To be sure, the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign can point to some significant accomplishments in this most recent campaign.  Most notably, Obama’s proportion of the popular vote (roughly 52.4%) is the highest for a Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976, and it is more than a 4% gain from John Kerry’s performance 4 years ago. (By the way, Obama’s vote total was almost exactly what the political science forecast models predicted back in August – I’ll devote an entire separate post to patting myself and my colleagues on the back in this regard.)  And the Democrats padded their majorities in both the House and the Senate, picking up from 20-23 House seats and 6-8 Senate seats (all pending final results, resolution of the Stevens mess, etc.)  So this was a decisive victory.

But upon closer inspection, there are elements of Tuesday’s results that should concern Democrats and which make it clear that this did not represent a fundamental restructuring of the political landscape. First, despite the much publicized increase in voter registration, overall turnout in 2008 among eligible voters was not much – if at all – higher than in 2004. Although preliminary numbers indicate Democratic turnout went up by about 2.6%, Republican turnout dropped 1.3%.  So Obama’s margin of victory owes quite a bit to lackluster Republican participation.  Second, despite an increase in African-American support, Obama was still not able to match Clinton’s ability to break the Republican stranglehold on the South. Recall that in 1996, Clinton won more electoral votes (379) in large part due to his electoral strength in the South; he took Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana, in addition to Florida.  Third, Obama wasn’t able to close the deal with those bitter, gun-toting, bible-thumping Reagan Democrats that did support Clinton (and Carter). Although Obama won Ohio, he did so with a smaller total vote than Kerry received there in 2004, and he lost West Virginia. In those states where Obama did expand the electoral map, notably in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, he did so primarily on the strength of upper-income suburbanites and African-American voters.

Finally, Democratic gains in the House – somewhere between 20-23 seats as of this writing – fell short of pre-election expectations, suggesting that Obama’s “coattails” were no greater than that of previous presidents.

We shouldn’t overplay these weaknesses. I will look more closely at demographic trends among voters, as revealed by exit poll data, in a separate post.  But they suggest that the Democrats, if they play their cards correctly in the next two years, are poised to build on some of the strengths revealed in this election, particularly among young voters, women, and suburbanites.  But these gains are likely to come as they did on Tuesday – incrementally, through the normal ebb and flow of electoral politics, rather than through any single “transformative” electoral moment. The Democrats are in the majority, but they are far from being entrenched as the majority party. Essentially, they have regained ground lost to the Republicans since 2000, putting them back on rough parity with their strength at the start of Clinton’s presidency in 1993. In Clinton’s first two years, Democrats controlled 57 seats in the Senate, and controlled the House 258-176: almost identical to what their numbers will be in the next congressional session.  Lest Democrats get overconfident, remember that after Clinton’s first two years they lost control of both houses to the Republicans for over a decade. That should give Democrats pause for thought!

In short, I see no evidence that the nation has become predominantly blue, or that this was a “transformative” election in the basic political sense.  But, if the Democrats don’t reprise the Clinton’s first-term mistakes by overreaching on the mistaken belief that they have an electoral “mandate”, they could conceivably build on the electoral trends revealed on Tuesday to once again become the dominant political party, much as they were for most of the New Deal era.  They just aren’t there yet.

A final, sobering, thought. Four years ago, Karl Rove – on the heels of George Bush’s reelection based on an increased vote total from 2000, and continued and expanded Republican control of Congress – openly speculated that the Republicans were on the verge of replicating the realignment of 1896, when McKinley’s election ushered in thirty-years of almost uninterrupted Republican dominance of American politics.  The emerging Republican dominance, Rove predicted, would be predicated on a new “compassionate” conservatism that melded a diverse coalition of suburbanites, Latinos, evangelicals, and a growing middle-class dominated by soccer Moms and young entrepreneurs.  The Democrats seemed increasingly marginalized, with their dwindling base largely restricted to cultural elites, African Americans and labor unions.  Geographically, the Democrats seemed to have lost the American heartland. Rove’s analysis was shared by many Democrats and those in the media.

It is a stark reminder just how quickly political “transformations” can end.

Joe Biden – lost opportunity?

As you all know by now, Obama has chosen Delaware Senator Joe Biden to be his running mate. Assuming Joe doesn’t say something off the cuff in the next two days that will get him kicked off the ticket  – a big assumption – he will likely be ratified by the convention this week. My email predicting that Biden would be a poor choice (I think I compared him, unfavorably, to Dick Cheney) prompted – as I expected with the Cheney comparison – some heated objections from you.  So let me explain by way of providing some brief background on the vice president’s role today.

Presidency scholars typically date the advent of the “modern” vice presidency to Walter Mondale, the Minnesota Senator who served as Carter’s vice president from 1977-81.  Previously, vice presidents were chosen primarily for their ability to a) secure the nomination for the president and/or b) for their vote getting potential in the general election. Once in office, they typically exercised very little influence. Most were shunted to subsidiary roles heading obscure commissions, sent overseas to attend state funerals, and generally waited to see if the President would die in office.

Mondale changed this.  Carter relied on him for insight into how the Washington establishment worked.  Carter had campaigned as a Washington, DC outsider, with very little national experience, and was smart enough to realize he needed someone who understood Capitol Hill.  Mondale, unlike previous vice presidents, received an office in the West Wing, developed an extensive staff, met alone with Carter for weekly meetings, and generally was an effective adviser who enjoyed strong relations with the President.

Ever since Mondale, every vice president has assumed a more integral policy and advising role. This has had two ramifications for the selection of the Vice President. First, it has elevated the need to choose a VP with whom the President feels some comfort. Now, as I indicated in my previous email, that comfort sometimes takes a while to achieve (Reagan and Bush I) and sometimes it disappears (Clinton and Gore). But generally presidential candidates today do not want to choose a VP with whom they do not have some rapport.  By all accounts, Biden and Obama are comfortable with one another. The exception – and it is an important exception that applies to Obama – is if there is a potential vice presidential candidate who carries some electoral clout or who can otherwise bolster the ticket.  In that case, electoral considerations may outweigh compatibility issues.

This leads to the second implication of the Mondale modernization of the vice president’s role. It is now possible to “sell” your vice presidential choice not just in terms of the nominee’s delegate or vote getting ability, but also their policy expertise. If they are perceived to compensate for a presidential candidate’s weaknesses – say, inexperience in the ways of Washington, or a lack of foreign policy gravitas – then they may enhance the presidential ticket. Or so the argument goes.

This was Bush II’s rationale for choosing Dick Cheney – he wasn’t selected because he could bring Wyoming into the Republican fold!  Cheney has extensive foreign policy experience within the executive branch as well as having served several terms on Capitol Hill.  As an added virtue, he had no presidential ambitions of his own, so Bush did not worry that at some point Cheney’s interests might clash with Bush’s (see Gore and Clinton after 1996). My point here is not to defend (or critique) Cheney’s policy views – I leave that to you. But I do claim that, among the modern vice presidents, Cheney has been among the most effective for serving as an influential adviser and in helping the President achieve his own policy goals.  That’s the additional quality that a president wants from the vice president today.

Now consider Biden.  Obviously, he wasn’t selected because he’s going to bring Delaware into the Democratic column. He has some electoral virtues – he may help with the Catholic vote, he may bring in blue collar workers in Pennsylvania (an important swing state), he has extensive experience in the Senate.  But these are marginal benefits at best. In fact, Biden was chosen to be Bush’s Cheney – to compensate for Obama’s perceived weakness on foreign policy.  As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Biden has extensive foreign policy experience.  But it’s the wrong type of experience, in my view.

Senators, by the nature of their job, are not conceptualizers or managers – they are counter punchers, and from a partisan and constituency-based perspective. Biden has spent his lifetime viewing foreign policy through a senatorial perspective. That means conducting oversight of the executive branch policy and intervening when he sees partisan and/or constituency benefits. It is largely a reactive role.  Biden has never been forced to manage foreign policy, or implement it. This shows in his handling of the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq. In both instances he has largely supported the primary thrust of the policy, while critiquing its implementation. Obama says he never would have voted in favor of the Iraq war resolution. But Biden did. Note that Biden’s foreign policy activity to date is appropriate in his role as Senator; he is expected to oversee the executive branch’s conduct of foreign policy.   But it is a far cry from running the Defense Department in wartime, as Cheney did with Bush I, or sitting in the Oval Office next to the President while he decides whether to launch military action, as Cheney did with Ford.  In short, Obama may find out if he is elected that Biden’s foreign policy expertise is not what he needs in the Oval Office.

Let’s be clear here – selecting Biden is not a disaster.  My guess is he will cost Obama very little at the polls, and may even prove to be marginally beneficial. But this was Obama’s first major choice as the presumptive nominee, and he lost an opportunity to solidify his image as an agent of change. Biden is a white male who has twice failed in his bid to be president and who brings very little to the table electorally beyond a perception of foreign policy experience and it is the wrong type of foreign policy experience in my view.  More importantly, on the signature issue, which arguably did more than anything else to bring Obama the support of the Democratic, left – the Iraq War – Biden voted the “wrong” way.   So what kind of signal does the choice of Biden send?  Rather than change, it looks like Obama is trying to take on McCain in an area – foreign policy -where Obama cannot beat McCain.  Choosing Biden is a decision to fight this election on the wrong terrain, from Obama’s perspective and, I suspect, from that of Obama’s core supporters.

Perhaps more significantly, he has provided an opening for McCain to use his vice presidential selection to demonstrate the imaginative leadership that Obama’s choice does not do by, for example, choosing a woman as his VP.  At the same time, McCain can use Obama’s snub of Clinton as an opening to woo her core supporters who are more centrist and thus more amenable to entreaties from a “maverick” Republican.

If he is smart, McCain can take advantage of Obama’s miscue – but will he?  In my next post I’ll examine McCain’s short list of vice presidential candidates. Condi Rice, anyone?