Carving out his place in history
Helsinki Times 5/2013

Charly Salonius-Pasternak has published an article on President Barack Obama’s second term in Helsinki Times on 31 January. The article is based on his recently released FIIA Briefing Paper Carving out his place in history: What challenges will Barack Obama tackle in his second term?


As President Barack Obama returns for a second term, he has the opportunity to go from being a good president to one of the most highly regarded ever. To accomplish this amid a polarised political atmosphere, he has to oversee the implementation of first-term policies; make additional gains in domestic policy; and set US foreign policy on a more sustainable course.

The most underappreciated achievement of the first Obama administration was to limit the effects of the recession that began in 2008. The stimulus (formally the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) was a success that continues to change the US.

The most controversial achievement that Obama must ensure is thoroughly implemented is the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It makes possible the greatest structural healthcare improvements that Americans have seen since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s. Improving care, reducing the power of insurance companies, and extending coverage to tens of millions of Americans while reducing costs, is a monumental achievement.

Obama has achieved improvements in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights that grant LGBT Americans almost equal status as citizens.

Obama’s primary domestic task during his second term must be to ensure that the changes become irreversible; Republicans will fight this tooth and nail.

Second-term domestic priorities

Obama will focus on domestic issues during his second term. On the agenda are immigration reform and climate change. Closing Guantanamo Bay will rank as a second-tier issue, like gun control.

Progress will depend on Republican willingness to work with Obama and other Democrats. It is likely that the GOP will continue its obstructionist politics and attacks against policies brought forth by the White House and Democrats in Congress.

The most likely area for bipartisan cooperation is immigration reform, particularly to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently working and living in the US. Any reform is likely to include changed visa regulations and tougher enforcement provisions. The GOP has primarily opposed reform because it would provide Democrats with new voters, but has recognised the need to attract Latino voters by moderating its stance on immigration. It is likely that Obama will achieve the passage of something like the Dream Act, paving the way to integrate illegal immigrants into American society.

Climate change mitigation was not a focus during Obama’s first term. Howeover, e did double fuel efficiency standards for cars and earmarked over ninety billion dollars for clean energy efforts.

A key issue is combining efforts to limit climate change with a focus on achieving greater energy independence. The development of shale gas has triggered a major shift in energy dynamics. It is unclear how Obama intends to take advantage of predicted complete US energy independence and how he will continue to support renewable environmentally sound energy production when energy prices remain low.

Obama’s domestic achievements could rival those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like FDR, he continues to face foreign policy challenges. While he is unlikely to oversee historic changes like those that emerged from the Second World War, the emergence of an Obama Doctrine and strengthened Pivot to Asia will ensure that he also makes his mark.

The Obama Doctrine and Pivot to Asia

Obama has laid the groundwork for a new US approach to the rest of the world. His second-term foreign policy team will build on this, and continue the Pivot to Asia, while refining the emerging Obama Doctrine. The use of drones, Special Forces and cyber weapons will continue to directly address threats to US national security.

The administration is ready to unilaterally use large-scale military force only if national security is threatened. In less critical situations, Obama is ready to contribute, but partners are expected to take the lead. The US approach to Libya was an example: both Arab and European countries were expected to lead, while the US provided support.

Some see this as a US withdrawal from the global leadership role, but in Washington it is about saying that the time for freeriding is over. Obama recognises the limits of American power, while appreciating the indispensable role of the US in global affairs. This includes accepting that other nations will do things their way; achieving 70 per cent of its goals with limited contributions is a good deal for the White House.

The second major pillar of foreign policy was the Pivot to Asia. The goal, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is “to build a web of partnerships and institutions across the Pacific that is as durable and as consistent with American interests and values as the web we have built across the Atlantic”.

The US will continue to uphold its responsibilities towards NATO, but more attention will be focused on Asia. Europe will need to assume far more responsibility for its own defence. A trans-Atlantic free trade area between the US and the EU should put to rest any fears of US abandonment of Europe; the EU would do well to focus on concluding such an agreement.

The Obama doctrine depends on the use of two new tools, and a balanced diplomatic approach to building relationships. One of the new tools is the use of drones to conduct extrajudicial strikes and kill hundreds of individuals in (at least) Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Their use has been justified as having decimated al-Qaeda, thereby preventing new terrorist strikes against Americans. Of far more long-term importance is the precedent set. The consequences of the use of drones will continue to be relevant throughout the second Obama administration.

The second tool is cyber weaponry, used especially against Iran, and possibly other states. Whether Iran ultimately develops a nuclear weapon is less important than the fact that the Obama administration has publicly opened Pandora’s box –together with Israel and China igniting a cyber arms race. Obama has made it clear that the United States possesses advanced cyber capabilities and is willing to use them.

What limited the foreign policy achievements was an inability to focus on key issues, largely due to a tsunami of major foreign policy events, compounded by misunderstandings when the President offered the hand of friendship to all comers, some of whom interpreted it as a sign of weakness. Starting in 2011, the White House reoriented itself in this regard.

Managing risk and preparing for the future

Obama is likely to continue to focus on domestic affairs. Foreign policy will focus on managing risk and preparing for the future. The administration believes that nation-building at home is a prerequisite to be able to build relationships that can positively influence world affairs – a better foreign policy will follow from a domestically stronger US.

The most important thing Obama can do is to further institutionalise the US-China relationship, which will continue to evolve, with both sides recognizing the need for restraint but with competition intensifying. The biannual economic and security dialogues are a good start but more effort is needed.

The US will also deepen cooperation with numerous Asian states, engaging each country on its terms. Obama must ensure that the soft containment approach aimed at China strikes a balance between gently encouraging positive behaviour by China while reassuring partners that the US will stand firm against Chinese aggression.

The US will also have to balance engagement and reassurance in dealing with Russia. NATO contingency plans were extended to cover new members during Obama’s first term, and a range of exercises were held to emphasize this. At the same time, Obama led a ‘reset’ of US relations with Russia, with positive but mixed results: the New START Treaty, Afghanistan and Iran were three successful areas. Relations are likely to ebb and flow, with tense times expected following deployments of the US-NATO Ballistic Missile Defence system.

Russia will not be seen as a significant US priority, though cooperation will continue. Washington wants to see Europe taking the lead to coax Russia into a denser web of economic and political cooperation, providing support as needed.

In the Middle East, Obama will focus on withdrawal from Afghanistan , most likely leaving a few thousand American soldiers in the country from 2015 onwards.

While Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions are likely to dominate Obama’s agenda, he is likely to focus on building relationships with the leaders emerging from the revolutions in the Middle East, while providing support for the development of democratic institutions. Obama is also likely to try to broker peace agreements between Israel and its neighbours (including Palestinians), while efforts aimed at Iran could result in a military strike or more likely a shift towards containment of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Ultimately, the US will remain globally active and engaged, but the days when the US paid for the upkeep of the global commons or singlehandedly tried to contain emerging crises is over. The selection of John Kerry as Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense suggests that Obama wants American foreign and security policy to be capable but restrained. This will be seen in the Pentagon budget, emphasising a ‘light footprint’ approach and an increased political, economic and diplomatic focus for American engagement.

President Barack Obama’s place in history is assured by his first-term achievements and socio-historic background. Achieving similar success in his second administration would contribute to a strong argument for his symbolic inclusion on Mount Rushmore.