On the eve of his inauguration as president, Woodrow Wilson famously commented that “It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” For Barack Obama, the irony has been exactly the opposite. Wilson, a former academic, famed orator and political newcomer who had barely traveled outside the United States, was unusually well-suited to champion progressive reform at home, but found himself presiding over a war instead. Obama, a former academic, famed orator and political newcomer who spent much of his childhood outside the United States, was unusually well-suited to remake America’s relations with the world, but has instead found himself presiding over a nation consumed by domestic peril.
In 2009, the financial crisis made Obama a domestic policy president; in 2010, the oil spill has confirmed it. Consider his address last night from the Oval Office. It was clearly designed to mimic a speech taking the nation to war. Obama talked about oil “assaulting our shores,” his “battle plan” for combating the disaster and near the speech’s end, explicitly compared the struggle for energy independence to World War II. The only thing missing was William James’ famous phrase “moral equivalent of war,” which Jimmy Carter employed when he demanded that America move beyond oil in a nationally televised speech 33 years ago. (Unless the U.S. changed course, Carter warned in 1977, “We will feel mounting pressure to plunder the environment. We will…drill more offshore wells.” How’s that for depressing?)
Obama’s oil spill speech, in fact, sounded more warlike than the Afghanistan speech he gave last December at West Point. There, Obama’s call to battle was oddly cramped. “I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means or our interests,” he told the cadets. “We simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars.” Not exactly a rousing sendoff for young men and women off to fight and perhaps die. Compare that with Obama’s oil spill speech, where he declared that “The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to be met.” On energy security, the message is: whatever it takes. On Afghanistan, the message is: as long as it doesn’t cost too much.
The Obama presidency is turning out to be the opposite of George W. Bush’s. Bush was complacent domestically, ambitious overseas. Obama, by contrast, plays small ball beyond America’s borders while seeking radical change at home. The oil spill fits that paradigm perfectly. It furthers two of Obama’s most important domestic initiatives—re-regulating American industry and putting a price on carbon—and it allows him to make a plug for reducing America’s reliance on the Middle East.
By making his first Oval Office speech a plea for energy independence, Obama has offered the clearest evidence yet that if he has a foreign policy doctrine, it is something along the lines of “strategic retrenchment.” By reducing U.S. forces in Iraq, reducing U.S. goals in Afghanistan and eschewing war with Iran, he is trying to give himself the money and time to rebuild American domestic strength for the growing economic struggle with China and other rising powers. The Gulf oil spill makes that effort harder, because it adds a massive new domestic problem that Obama must try to solve. But it also helps to create the urgency that he needs to do on energy what he did on health care: overcome decades of inertia and narrow self-interest and make fundamental change. As Obama said in his Afghanistan speech, “the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.” His presidency will rise or fall on what he builds.