In an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Escape Artists, Noam Scheiber has a behind-the-scenes story in The New Republic about how the Obama administration mostly botched the debt ceiling negotiations with Republicans last year. I'm guessing that Scheiber's best sources were the Treasury folk, because they come off looking the best -- advising Obama to cut a deal with the Republicans in December 2010, telling him to not negotiate policy concessions to get a debt ceiling boost, and so forth. Obama did not listen to them, and we all know what happened. Scheiber goes on to note that after the debt ceiling drama of the summer, Obama learned to attack conservatives rather than compromise with them, thereby improving his political fortunes.
He closes the essay with the following:
For voters contemplating whether he deserves a second term, the question is less and less one of policy or even worldview than of basic disposition. Throughout his political career, Obama has displayed an uncanny knack for responding to existential threats. He sharpened his message against Hillary Clinton in late November 2007, just in time to salvage the Iowa caucuses and block her coronation. He condemned his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, just before Wright’s racialist comments could doom his presidential hopes. Once in office, Obama led two last-minute counteroffensives to save health care reform. But, in every case, the adjustments didn’t come until the crisis was already at hand. His initial approach was too passive and too accommodating, and he stuck with it far too long.
Given the booby traps that await the next president—Iranian nukes, global financial turmoil—this habit seems dangerously risky. Sooner or later, Obama may encounter a crisis that can’t be reversed at the eleventh hour. Is Obama’s newfound boldness on the economy yet another last-minute course-correction? Or has he finally learned a deeper lesson? More than just a presidency may hinge on the answer.
There are two big problems with this kind of formulation. The first is that, for all of Obama's stumbles and bumbles on the debt ceiling issue, it's hard to argue in retrospect that he lost that political fight. Since the debt ceiling dispute, Obama's approval numbers have moved north while Congress has become historically unpopular. The improving economy likely explains some of this -- but if that was the only part of the story then Congress' numbers should be rising as well.
It's not that Obama handled the debt ceiling talks terribly well -- it's just that Scheiber misses the point that the Republicans made an even bigger hash of things. Obama came off as someone willing to deal and the House GOP came off as a group of people looking forward to the apocalypse. Looking more reasonable that one's adversaries occasionally matters in domestic politics -- and it's not in Scheiber's account (full and fair disclosure: I would have been in agreement with Scheiber six months ago).
The more interesting question is whether there's any validity to Scheiber's larger point -- that Obama's initial passivity in responding to political crises suggests he's ill-prepared for handling global crises. Does Scheiber's pattern of how Obama responded to domestic political challenges match up with his foreign policy?
I think Scheiber has half a point. As I've noted in the past, the administration's first set of foreign policies were predicated on the same basic impulse that Obama had domestically: deals and bargains were possible in many parts of the globe. However, as the administration found itself rebuffed and frustrated by various international actors (Iran, China, etc.) it quickly pivoted to a more aggressive -- and more fruitful -- counterpunching approach. Similar to how the debt ceiling negotiations play out, Obama has benefited from his initial outreaches; he can say he tried the olive branch before turning to the stick. When it comes to global actors that Obama perceives as enemies or rivals, his administration has been pretty ruthless.
Where Scheiber might have a point is with how Obama has handled America's friends and allies. Obviously, these countries should have more common interests with the United States, so by and large they should be less obstreperous. When issues have flared up, however -- with Israel on housing settlements, with Europe on the sovereign debt crisis, with post-reset Russia on anything, and with G-20 allies on quantitative easing -- the administration seems slow-moving, awkward, and occasionally shocked that these countries might have interests that diverge from the United States.
Pressuring and cajoling allies is a tricky and delicate business. One would be hard-pressed to argue that the Bush administration did a great job of it. Still, as the latest iteration of the Eurocrisis plays out, Scheiber might have hit on the Achilles heel of Obama's foreign policy acumen.
What do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.