By appointing Susan Rice as his new national-security adviser and Samantha Power to represent the U.S. at the United Nations, Barack Obama is practically shouting a message to the Washington GOP: “I’m no longer afraid of you.”
Flash back four years. Obama skipped over Rice and other campaign confidantes to name James Jones, a guy he barely knew, to head the National Security Council. Why? Because Obama was a liberal Democrat and Jones was a Marine General who could watch his back with the military, especially if Obama made decisions on Afghanistan and Iraq that David Petraeus and company didn’t like. For Secretary of Defense, Obama passed over a gaggle of hungry Democrats to retain Robert Gates. Why? Because Gates, as a Republican appointed by George W. Bush, could protect Obama on Capitol Hill. Even Hillary Clinton was a politically cautious move, since she had run to Obama’s right on foreign policy during the campaign and was more trusted by the “pro-Israel” establishment.
Flash forward to 2013. To replace Gates, Obama chooses Chuck Hagel, a man whose skepticism of military action in Iran and criticisms of Israeli policy have made him radioactive among his former GOP colleagues. Now, in the midst of two other scandals, Obama chooses Susan Rice to run the NSC, a woman Republicans have had up on a dartboard for the better part of a year over Benghazi. Even Samantha Power, though less controversial now, was the subject of fierce conservative attacks when she emerged as a key Obama adviser in 2008.
What Obama’s saying is that the Democratic Party has finally freed itself from the long shadow of Vietnam. For decades after the end of that war, Democrats peered nervously over their shoulders at a public that considered them soft. That’s why in 1988 Michael Dukakis climbed goofily into a tank. It’s why in 2004 Democrats tried to convince America that the single most important thing about John Kerry was that he had served in uniform. It’s why Obama couldn’t close Guantánamo Bay.
Now those anxieties are gone, first because George W. Bush destroyed the GOP’s foreign-policy brand, and second, because by ordering the military operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, Obama won himself all the tough-guy swagger he needed. Thus, last fall, when Mitt Romney tried to out-hawk him on Iran, Obama didn’t scramble to his right. To the contrary, in the foreign-policy debate he smacked Romney for being “reckless” in his willingness to “take premature military action.” It worked. According to virtually every poll, Americans said they trusted Obama more as commander in chief.
Since the election, it’s been more Obama unbound. He’s appointed a wildly controversial Defense secretary who has talked bluntly about his determination to keep America out of future wars. Then, late last month, he gave a speech vowing to close Guantánamo Bay and declaring the “war on terror” over. Now he’s appointing Rice. It’s quite a change. In 2009, Obama chose a Defense secretary and a national-security adviser Washington Republicans loved. This year, he’s chosen a Defense secretary and a national-security adviser they hate. The reason: he no longer needs to care as much what they think.
There’s an interesting analogy here between Obama’s foreign policy and Bill Clinton’s domestic policy. In his first few years, Clinton spent a lot of time trying to overcome the Democratic Party’s decades-old reputation for being loose with money and soft on crime. Instead of a big stimulus plan, he focused his first budget on deficit reduction. In 1994, he signed a crime bill that made 60 new crimes eligible for the federal death penalty. In 1996, he signed a welfare-reform bill so punitive that three top officials in his Department of Health and Human Services resigned.
Politically, it worked. Having largely eliminated crime and welfare as issues, and restored the Democratic Party’s reputation for fiscal rectitude, Clinton ran in the 1996 campaign as a defender of popular government programs like Social Security, Medicare, and education, and won big. Then, in his second term, with the deficit going down, he had the opportunity to pursue the unfettered liberal agenda he had deemed too risky in his first. But that opportunity was largely squandered by the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
On foreign policy, Obama now has his chance. He has erased the Democratic Party’s disadvantage on national security. He has ended the war in Iraq and will soon end the war in Afghanistan. He has put the people that he, not the GOP, wants in top jobs. David Petraeus, whose favor he once had to curry, can no longer do him much harm.
So what will Obama pursue? A comprehensive deal with Iran? A new initiative on climate change? A real effort at slashing nuclear stockpiles across the globe? One last presidential push for Mideast peace? He has laid the table for the kind of big, controversial foreign-policy initiative that would have been too risky in his first term. If Republicans are angry now, just wait. The real fun has yet to begin.