Second-Term Presidents, Flexibility, and Obama’s Open-Microphone Moment

Oops...Presidents Obama and Medvedev didn't realize a "hot microphone" was recording their words during a sensitive exchange at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in late March 2012.

Michael Kinsley famously defined a “gaffe” as when a politician tells the truth. On his recent trip to Seoul, President Obama was overheard (by an open microphone) making comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he no doubt intended to keep secret. In discussing nuclear arms control, Obama asked that the following message be relayed to incoming president Vladimir Putin:

“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space… This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”

A wide range of commentators, from conservative critics to left-leaning Jon Stewart, criticized the president for acting as if the American people and democratic elections were simply an impediment to his agenda.  But was he (as Michael Kinsley might argue) simply telling the truth?  Are presidents who no longer have to stand for reelection unconstrained by public opinion and able to finally act according to their own policy preferences?

Tufts professor Daniel Drezner says this bit of conventional wisdom is wrong.  He points out that presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush all pursued policies that departed from their ideological “type” in their second terms (e.g., Reagan compromising with the Soviets, Clinton using force without UN approval, and Bush pursuing less aggressive and more multilateral policies toward “rogue states”).   Drezner thinks these shifts can be explained by the moderating influence of facing reality: “I’d argue that precisely because presidents have fewer foreign policy constraints than domestic ones, they feel free to pursue their preferred set of policies from day one. Reality, however, quickly determines which ideas are working and which do not have any staying power. Over time, therefore, presidents change tack until they hit on a more successful formula. This usually means overcoming one’s personal ideology and embracing new ideas.”  In short, Drezner believes that the foreign policy powers of the executive branch in the U.S. system (both constitutionally granted and accrued over time) allow presidents to act relatively unconstrained throughout their presidencies.

Stephen Walt disagrees.  In a blog post entitled “How our election cycle screws up our foreign policy,” the Harvard professor and noted realist argues that presidents are actually constrained by domestic politics in unhealthy ways throughout their presidencies–but especially during the two years preceding the next presidential election.  Between fundraising, campaigning, and presidential primaries, two years of a four year term are filled with analysis, speculation, and preparation for the next election.  Walt shows that the American choice of a short presidential term and a long election process is unusual, cross-nationally:

“Other countries are not nearly so foolish. Parliamentary systems like Great Britain specify that general elections have to be held on regular intervals (i.e., every five years or so) though snap elections aren’t unusual. But I can’t think of any country that spends a year or more actually running the campaign. In Canada, for example, the Elections Act mandates that the minimum length of a campaign be 36 days, and the longest campaign ever recorded (in 1926), was only seventy-four days. In Australia, elections generally last about two months. Apart from the United States, the longest election period I could find in a brief search was Germany, at about 114 days for unscheduled elections. Needless to say, this period is still far shorter than the U.S. norm.”

Walt discusses a variety of problems America’s peculiar election cycle produces, most notably the tendency for presidents to cater to interest groups and the opportunity for foreign actors to take advantage of our domestic politics to further their own agendas.  If Walt is correct, then Obama was just telling the truth: the year or so leading up to the election is the period in which presidents will be least likely to step out and take controversial actions, while the beginning of a term is the time when the president enjoys the most latitude.

What do you think?  How constrained is the U.S. president in the realm of foreign policy?  If President Obama is reelected, do you expect him to act more liberal or conservative, more dovish or hawkish, than he did in his first term, and why?

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