When Barack Obama went into hibernation in December and vacationed in Hawaii, we noted that his poll numbers edged back up some. His advisers probably noticed the anomaly too: that the less the people hear and see of Obama, the more they seem to like the abstract idea of Obama — a young, charismatic postracial president. The reality of Obama is something else again: a highly partisan, divisive statist, who cannot finish a speech without blaming his predecessor, mangling history, or creating yet another straw-man bogeyman. The difficulty, then, is to convince the loquacious and crowd-adoring Obama to focus instead on private fundraisers, photo-ops, sporting events, and teleprompted studio speeches. He looks a lot more presidential when he’s golfing than he does when he’s giving yet another whiny speech about why high gas prices are somebody else’s fault and not drilling is sound energy policy.
Similarly, Obama realizes that the legislation he pushed for and that passed in the two years the Democrats controlled Congress before the tea-party revolt grows increasingly more unpopular. In any case, Obama is not keen on running for reelection on Obamacare or his stimulus package, given that his sinking polls bottomed out once the Republicans won the House and stopped much of his agenda. Somehow Obama must square the circle of blaming the Republican House for derailing the unpopular agenda of his first two years in office, and thereby giving him a far better chance for reelection.
Obama now also realizes that such a run-out-the-clock passivity might be even wiser abroad. It is one of life’s real injustices that the White House Rose Garden cannot be ripped out for a putting green, from which the world could better be waved on. The controversial outreach and reset diplomacy of 2009 are passé. There will be no more laureate speeches and interviews about an arrogant America of the pre-Obama past not listening to the Muslim world. Cairo speeches are the stuff of 2009, not 2012. Apologies for genocide and Hiroshima are ancient history. Ahmadinejad and Assad were not just creations of George Bush’s unilateralism. There will be no more bows, no more exclusive interviews with Al-Arabiya. There will be no new deadlines to Iran to really, really stop enrichment — or else.
Instead, Obama hopes that international sanctions can sort of run on autopilot without either Iran getting the bomb or anyone using force to stop it. There will be no more sermons to Israel, at least until after November. Britain is now to be courted rather than to be snubbed with tawdry gifts, and there is indeed still a special Anglo-American friendship after all. Foreign policy in the next half-year will mostly consist of frequent visits of heads of state to the White House and lavish state dinners.
Iraq is out of sight and out of mind; it will be no more than a campaign slogan of having “gotten the troops home for Christmas.” Afghanistan is important only to the extent that there can be a campaign promise that all U.S. troops are set to be gone in less than two years. There is no expectation that a Putin, Chávez, or Castro will warm up to the U.S. or should even be wished any more to warm up. Obama once gave a rousing speech proclaiming that America is not the sort of country that could let insurgents in Libya be crushed, but he realizes in 2012 that America, in fact, may be the sort of country that can let insurgents be crushed in Syria, given that our participation in Libya was predicated on facts quite unlike those in Syria: Qaddafi was weak; his country was strategically unimportant; the chances of American losses were slight; there was United Nations cover; Europeans were already at war with him — and the reelection was still far away.
In other words, after just three years, there is a quiet concession that the world remains, well, the world, whether a Texan cowboy or a Chicago community organizer is the president of the United States. Obama’s chief foreign-policy aim now is to hope that nothing much flares up before the November election — at least as long as the race still seems to be tight. In the current political climate of growing isolationism at home, that means more or less putting Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan on ice, and hoping that Israel does not strike Iran’s facilities sometime within the next seven months.
We are in a period of quiet acknowledgment that Obama’s 2009 dreams of a world tamed by hope-and-change rhetoric from a postnational American critic remain largely fantasies; we can only hope that there will be no nightmares in 2012. Obama is not quite Jimmy Carter, who retreated to the Rose Garden during the campaign of 1980 during the Iranian hostage crisis in hopes of seeming engaged while actually being flummoxed and disengaged, but he has adopted the same spirit — a virtual Rose Garden of appearing busy and on top of things, while doing little abroad that could cause turmoil, which in turn could lead to unpopularity at home over yet another messy and costly Middle East commitment.
In matters of foreign policy, the challenge for Obama is to campaign on all the important things he is dreaming of doing abroad, when in reality he is counting on doing nothing much at all — and on no one doing much of anything to him.