Obama’s home stretch to focus on foreign policy

US President Barack Obama has been strangled by Republican Congressional majorities but is still on the verge of sealing his legacy on the international front, writes Andrew Hammond.

Obama’s home stretch to focus on foreign policy

At a moment when much of the world is watching Greece, one of the most critical moments in Barack Obama’s presidency is also fast approaching.

Within a few days, the US president could secure not just a historic nuclear agreement with Iran, but also sign into law domestic legislation that could enable two potentially landmark international trade agreements — allowing the country to help write what US officials have called “the rules of the road” for the 21st century world economy.

Together with an Iran deal, the success of a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) — which would link the economies of countries that generate 40% and 50% respectively of global gross domestic product — could be the high point of Obama’s second term, embedding US influence in Asia-Pacific, the Americas, and Europe.

These victories would become a major part of his presidential legacy as his tenure in the White House begins to wind down.

The fact that Obama’s second-term legacy is being defined on the foreign policy front, rather than by domestic policy, has become a relatively common pattern for re-elected presidents in recent decades. Since his 2012 campaign against Republican Mitt Romney, Obama has achieved very little domestic policy success.

His gun control bill was defeated and looks unlikely to be rejuvenated despite this month’s tragic shooting in Charleston. Comprehensive immigration reform faces significant opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. And the prospect of a long-term budgetary ‘grand bargain’ with Congress in 2015 or 2016 looks very unlikely too.

Implementation of his landmark healthcare initiative was widely seen as botched.

Many re-elected presidents in the postwar era have, like Obama, struggled to acquire domestic policy momentum, in large part because their parties, as with the Democrats now, often hold a weaker position in Congress.

Thus Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, and Bill Clinton in 1996 were all re-elected alongside Congresses where both the House of Representatives and Senate were largely controlled by their partisan opponents.

While US Congress can significantly influence the course of Obama’s foreign policy — the legislature, for example, will vote on any deal that is ultimately brokered with Iran — it generally has less latitude over international issues, compared to domestic issues.

So, with little opportunity to push domestic policy forward, the president’s focus on foreign policy may only grow for his remaining period in office, especially if the US economy continues to recover.

The Iranian deal is being brokered amidst frenetic diplomacy, with a June 30 deadline — set by the so-called P5+1 (the US, China, Russia, the UK, France, and Germany) — fast approaching.

Despite domestic US and international criticism of such a deal, securing a comprehensive nuclear agreement would be seen as a major victory for the White House. Any deal with Iran also has the potential to transform the wider geopolitics of the Middle East, and help with Obama’s broader goal of enhancing global nuclear security.

On the trade policy front, Obama hopes to sign into law domestic legislation, Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance, which will enable TPP. TPP reflects Obama’s desire to reorient US international policy towards the Asia-Pacific region and other strategic, high-growth markets.

The US president also wants to secure TTIP — a trade and investment deal with the 28 EU states. This deal would represent the largest regional free trade and investment agreement in history, with the United States and Europe accounting for more than 50% of the world’s gross domestic product.

In addition to these trade deals and a nuclear agreement with Iran, Obama could bolster his presidential legacy with other international achievements. In Iraq and Syria, a US-led military coalition is trying to weaken Islamic State, while a reduced US force remains in Afghanistan to stabilise the new national unity government, the victim of recent Taliban attacks.

In Europe, meanwhile, the Obama administration is helping to bolster Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea last year.

If Greece defaults on its international debts and decides to leave the eurozone, the White House may have to play a greater diplomatic role in the continent to manage the political and economic fallout.

Obama is entering into a massively important period of his presidency, with several major potential foreign policy objectives that will help to define his legacy.

With his domestic policy stalling in the US Congress, his focus on key international issues may only intensify.

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