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Derek Shearer Headshot

Obama's Second Term: Dead Already or Strategic Awareness?

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Is Barack Obama already a lame duck president?

I hope not. It wouldn't be good for the country, and it would certainly disappoint my students who have written policy memos for his second term.

I've just finished teaching a seminar at Occidental on American Grand Strategy (which a few of my friends critical of Obama view as an Oxymoron). I challenged the students to think beyond the obvious issues of the day -- the crisis in Syria, gun control legislation, immigration reform, implementation of the health care law -- and focus their critical thinking on other challenges which might be game changers in national or global policy.

We began the course by reading Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, a report prepared by the National Intelligence Council, and moved on to the strategic outlook provided by the Atlantic Council's report, Envisioning 2030: US Strategy for a Post-Western World, and then to the Brookings Institution's Presidential Briefing Book: Big Bets and Black Swans: Policy Recommendations for President Obama's Second Term. I also assigned Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power by Zbigniew Brzezinski. The author of the Atlantic Council report, Banning Garrett from the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, spent an afternoon with the students to discuss global trends and how the Obama administration is responding.

Next, I had them study big topics, reading: How The World Ends: The Road to Nuclear World War III by Ron Rosenbaum on nuclear proliferation; Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Change by David Orr; The Freedom Agenda by James Taub on US foreign policy and democracy promotion; and No One's World: The West, the Rising Rest and the Coming Global Turn by Charles Kupchan on exercising US power in an increasingly multipolar world.

I asked James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, to brief students on the politics of presidential second terms, and to offer his analysis of the Obama White House. They then set out to "advise" Obama on how he might make significant political progress in the face of a hostile and recalcitrant Republican opposition and a divided Congress.

The students understood that in coming to power in 2008 Obama had inherited two wars and a global financial meltdown from George Bush, and that the lingering effects of that inheritance are still keenly felt at home and abroad. It became clear to the students that while Presidents can make history, they don't do so in circumstances of their own choosing. I asked them to push the envelope of the possible without being unrealistic or Pollyannish -- to suggest ways in which Obama might use out of the box thinking and creative political framing to make significant change in his second four years.

Overall, they did a good job. One team looked at the nuclear issue and fraught US relations with Russia and came up with a proposal for Smart START -- a strategy for reducing nonstrategic nuclear weapons and eliminating 'hair trigger' nuclear alerts. Given the recent thaw between Putin and Obama on terrorism because of the tragic events in Boston, it's possible that Obama might be able to make this issue a major topic of discussion when he holds his next summit with the Russian leader. In a paper on energy policy, a student argued for a carbon tax on power plants combined with a subsidy rebate for development of green technologies which might win over power companies and provide Obama with added political support on the issue of global warming.

On economic policy, student teams proposed a comprehensive program of strategic industrial and resource policy, and tax and corporate reform which might reduce the sky high salaries of corporate executives and offer more transparency to the tax system. In each set of policy proposals, the students included creative ideas for how the Obama team could frame these reforms for public consumption and political advocacy.

The NIC's 2030 report made clear that good and effective US-China relations are a key to global economic and social progress. One student paper analyzed disputes in the South China sea and increasing military assertiveness by the Chinese military, suggesting that President Obama support the Law of the Sea Treaty, and bring it to the Senate for confirmation, framing it around its utility in moving China to a more legal and international based system of dispute resolution. Another foreign policy paper argued for greater White House support for environmental diplomacy between the US and China. On an upcoming trip to China, I will discuss my students' proposals with Chinese university audiences.

My students' work is only one set of examples of ways in which President Obama can make history in his second term -- but to do so will require strong leadership, better political messaging from the White House, and more strategic thinking, rather than just responding to the crises of the day. Of course, it won't be easy. Republicans will oppose him at almost every turn; but he is the President of the United States, and I believe, still has a lot of running room to make change by executive action.On the issue of economic inequality and declining economic opportunity for example, he could appoint a Presidential commission to hold hearings and issue reports on the causes and remedies, shifting public debate from the deficit to fairness and equality. He could ideally appoint Senator Elizabeth Warren to chair, creating a new Warren Commission. On the issue of climate change, he could follow the example of the Australian government which set up a Climate Commission in 2011, chaired by internationally renown scientist Tim Flannery, and establish a similar body in the US to report on the costs of climate change, support public educational events, and explain the merits of carbon pricing. Whatever position he takes on the Keystone pipeline, he could announce such a commission at the same time.

It's important for Obama to try to move the political debate in a more progressive direction. In this way, even when he can't pass legislation he can tee up issues for action in the Clinton administration that might follow. The mid-term elections will be difficult for Obama and for the Democratic Party. The inevitable hiccups in implementing the health care law will be used against him as part of Republicans anti-government attack. Bill and Hillary Clinton will inevitably be among the top party leaders out on the political hustings, fighting to maintain and to increase seats in the Senate and the House.

It's imperative that the amicable feelings and good relations displayed between President Obama and Hillary during the unprecedented joint appearance on 60 Minutes earlier this year be maintained and strengthened. The mid-terms will be one test, and then after, when Hillary has made her formal announcement to run for President, the best situation would be for harmonious cooperation between the White House and the Clinton campaign.

Bill Clinton's achievements and legacy suffered because he was not followed in the White House by Al Gore who lost partly because he did not make use of Bill Clinton in his campaign. The Clinton/Gore program Putting People First which we drafted in 1992 envisioned eight years of Clinton and eight years of Gore to get the country back on the right track. More than ever, eight years of Obama followed by eight years of Hillary Clinton are needed to assure nation building at home is a success while strong and sensible American leadership abroad is maintained. A diverse, democratic, thriving America is at stake.