Barack Obama has been elected president of the
Truly extraordinary were the celebrations held around the world upon Obama's victory. They affirm the global expectations Obama has raised -- and reveal that the
Obama is an extraordinary rhetorician, and as Aristotle pointed out, rhetoric is one of the foundations of political power. Rhetoric has raised him to the presidency, along with the tremendous unpopularity of his predecessor and a financial crisis that took a tied campaign and gave Obama a lead he carefully nurtured to victory. So, as with all politicians, his victory was a matter of rhetoric and, according to Machiavelli, luck. Obama had both, but now the question is whether he has Machiavelli's virtue in full by possessing the ability to exercise power. This last element is what governing is about, and it is what will determine if his presidency succeeds.
Embedded in his tremendous victory is a single weakness: Obama won the popular vote by a fairly narrow margin, about 52 percent of the vote. That means that almost as many people voted against him as voted for him.
Obama's Agenda vs. Expanding His Base
U.S. President George W. Bush demonstrated that the inability to understand the uses and limits of power can crush a presidency very quickly. The enormous enthusiasm of Obama's followers could conceal how he -- like Bush -- is governing a deeply, and nearly evenly, divided country. Obama's first test will be simple: Can he maintain the devotion of his followers while increasing his political base? Or will he believe, as Bush and Cheney did, that he can govern without concern for the other half of the country because he controls the presidency and Congress, as Bush and Cheney did in 2001? Presidents are elected by electoral votes, but they govern through public support.
Obama and his supporters will say there is no danger of a repeat of Bush -- who believed he could carry out his agenda and build his political base at the same time, but couldn't. Building a political base requires modifying one's agenda. But when you start modifying your agenda, when you become pragmatic, you start to lose your supporters. If Obama had won with 60 percent of the popular vote, this would not be as pressing a question. But he barely won by more than Bush in 2004. Now, we will find out if Obama is as skillful a president as he was a candidate.
Obama will soon face the problem of beginning to disappoint people all over the world, a problem built into his job. The first disappointments will be minor. There are thousands of people hoping for appointments, some to Cabinet positions, others to the White House, others to federal agencies. Many will get something, but few will get as much as they hoped for. Some will feel betrayed and become bitter. During the transition process, the disappointed office seeker -- an institution in American politics -- will start leaking on background to whatever reporters are available. This will strike a small, discordant note; creating no serious problems, but serving as a harbinger of things to come.
Later, Obama will be sworn in. He will give a memorable, perhaps historic speech at his inauguration. There will be great expectations about him in the country and around the world. He will enjoy the traditional presidential honeymoon, during which all but his bitterest enemies will give him the benefit of the doubt. The press initially will adore him, but will begin writing stories about all the positions he hasn't filled, the mistakes he made in the vetting process and so on. And then, sometime in March or April, things will get interesting.
Iran and a
Obama has promised to withdraw U.S. forces from
Apart from upsetting Sunni and Kurdish allies of the United States in
This will be the point where Obama's pledge to talk to the Iranians will become crucial. If he simply withdraws from Iraq without a solid understanding with
Obama will then be forced to make a decision. He can withdraw from Iraq and suffer the geopolitical consequences while coming under fire from the substantial political right in the
The Afghan Dilemma
Obama will need to address
Many European countries will be inclined to provide some support, if for no other reason than to show that they are prepared to work with Obama. But European public opinion is not about to support a major deployment in
Obama's Afghan solution of building a coalition centered on the Europeans will thus meet a divided Europe with little inclination to send troops and with few troops to send in any event. That will force him into a confrontation with the Europeans in spring 2009, and then into a decision. The
He will have to make a hard decision on
The Russian Question
At the same time, Obama will face the Russian question. The morning after Obama's election, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced that Russia was deploying missiles in its European exclave of
Obama will again turn to the Europeans to create a coalition to resist the Russians. But the Europeans will again be divided. The Germans can't afford to alienate the Russians because of German energy dependence on Russia and because
Obama will have many options on domestic policy given his majorities in Congress. But his Achilles' heel, as it was for Bush and for many presidents, will be foreign policy. He has made what appear to be three guarantees. First, he will withdraw from
Global Finance and the European Problem
The Europeans will pose another critical problem, as they want a second Bretton Woods agreement. Some European states appear to desire a set of international regulations for the financial system. There are three problems with this.
First, unless Obama wants to change course dramatically, the
Second, the creation of an international regulatory body that has authority over American banks would create a system where
And third, the Europeans themselves have no common understanding of things. Obama could thus quickly be drawn into complex EU policy issues that could tie his hands in the
One of the foundations of Obama's foreign policy -- and one of the reasons the Europeans have celebrated his election -- was the perception that Obama is prepared to work closely with the Europeans. He is in fact prepared to do so, but his problem will be the same one Bush had: The Europeans are in no position to give the things that Obama will need from them -- namely, troops, a revived NATO to confront the Russians and a global financial system that doesn't subordinate American financial authority to an international bureaucracy.
The Hard Road Ahead
Like any politician, Obama will face the challenge of having made a set of promises that are not mutually supportive. Much of his challenge boils down to problems that he needs to solve and that he wants European help on, but the Europeans are not prepared to provide the type and amount of help he needs. This, plus the fact that a U.S. withdrawal from
As with all American presidents (who face midterm elections with astonishing speed), Obama's foreign policy moves will be framed by his political support. Institutionally, he will be powerful. In terms of popular support, he begins knowing that almost half the country voted against him, and that he must increase his base. He must exploit the honeymoon period, when his support will expand, to bring another 5 percent or 10 percent of the public into his coalition. These people voted against him; now he needs to convince them to support him. But these are precisely the people who would regard talks with the Taliban or
And there is always the unknown. There could be a terrorist attack, the Russians could start pressuring the Baltic states, the Mexican situation could deteriorate. The unknown by definition cannot be anticipated. And many foreign leaders know it takes an administration months to settle in, something some will try to take advantage of. On top of that, there is now nearly a three-month window in which the old president is not yet out and the new president not yet in.
Obama must deal with extraordinarily difficult foreign policy issues in the context of an alliance failing not because of rough behavior among friends but because the allies' interests have diverged. He must deal with this in the context of foreign policy positions difficult to sustain and reconcile, all against the backdrop of almost half an electorate that voted against him versus supporters who have enormous hopes vested in him. Obama knows all of this, of course, as he indicated in his victory speech.
We will now find out if Obama understands the exercise of political power as well as he understands the pursuit of that power. You really can't know that until after the fact. There is no reason to think he can't finesse these problems. Doing so will take cunning, trickery and the ability to make his supporters forget the promises he made while keeping their support. It will also require the ability to make some of his opponents embrace him despite the path he will have to take. In other words, he will have to be cunning and ruthless without appearing to be cunning and ruthless. That's what successful presidents do.
In the meantime, he should enjoy the transition. It's frequently the best part of a presidency.
By George Friedman
Copyright 2008 Stratfor. http://www.startfor.com/