President Obama is in a rough political patch with the apparent demise of his top domestic priority, universal health care; with the loss of a 60-vote Democratic supermajority in the Senate; with improved Republican prospects for the midterm elections in November; and with his once sky-high approval rating now below 50 percent.
So, what does his weakened position mean for his handling of foreign affairs and for the tack that allies, rivals and outright enemies take toward the U.S.? With his focus on "jobs, jobs, jobs," Obama devoted a grand total of nine minutes to national security issues in his State of the Union address. Does this suggest less activism on the foreign policy front? If so, Obama would be going against the historical pattern, which suggests that a president weakened on the domestic front is likely to become more energetic in foreign affairs as the realm that is less subject to congressional and political control at home (Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon are examples).
In any case, what is the best course for Obama at this juncture? Should he try to improve his standing at home with a prestige-enhancing triumph abroad? Are there such opportunities out there -- for example, a bold deal with the Russians on nuclear disarmament, a tough package of sanctions against Iran, a breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Are the Russians, the Chinese, the Pakistanis, the Iranians, the Indians, the Japanese, the Europeans, likelier to be tougher or more accommodating with Obama facing troubles at home? (Or to put it another way: Do any of them want to see Obama fail?) Is a weakened Obama in danger of being seen as another Jimmy Carter -- that is, as an ineffectual president not likely to serve another term? (The analyst Les Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations is already likening Obama to Carter.) Is his damaged domestic position likely to matter in any way to Al Qaeda and other anti-U.S. Islamic militant groups?
Any and all speculations on this theme are welcome.