Barack Obama has a cautionary temperament, but a large imagination. That is, he defines his goals in grandiose terms, though he is prepared to take many small steps to reach them. Because he took office in the midst of an immense financial crisis (one that he had no reason to expect when he first decided to run), Obama spent far more of his first term staving off calamity than he would have hoped. A combination of sheer urgency, congressional intransigence, and the painful lessons of experience -- especially on foreign policy -- have sapped Obama's presidency of much of the youthful exuberance and ambition it once had. I cannot believe that he is altogether satisfied with where he finds himself today. As he faces his inauguration on Monday, Jan. 21, and his second term, he is sure to be thinking about how he can leave a mark on history commensurate with his sense of destiny.
It's a truism, and possibly even a true one, that U.S. presidents who win a second term look to foreign affairs to burnish their legacy. Foreign policy does not require messy compromises with Congress, and second-term presidents are usually more confident of their standing in the world and thus readier to go for broke. After a first term spent confronting the "Evil Empire," as he called the Soviet Union, in 1986 President Ronald Reagan met in Reykjavik, Iceland, with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, and came within a hairsbreadth of agreeing to eliminate much of the two countries' nuclear arsenals. President Bill Clinton made a last-ditch effort to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine; that failed, but Clinton's only slightly less difficult mediation between Britain and Northern Ireland succeeded. The same rule does not quite hold for President George W. Bush, who was all too confident of his judgment of the world before he knew anything about it and spent much of his second term cleaning up the mess he had caused in the first.
Obama came into office caring about foreign policy more than any of his predecessors back to the first President Bush. His advisors would tell you that Obama had not just a managerial agenda but an affirmative one: The chief elements were nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, fixing failed states, and rebuilding the international architecture. He has made real progress in all those areas, and he won a Nobel Peace Prize, which he acknowledged he did not yet deserve. His "engagement" policy has leached some of the poisons that gathered during George W. Bush's presidency. And yes, he killed Osama bin Laden. But Afghanistan has proved to be Obama's Big Muddy; Iran has shown no signs of giving up its nuclear program or caving under sanctions; Obama has found himself unable to act in the face of massive atrocities in Syria; and the president's bid to bring Middle East peace came to naught. Had he lost the election, Obama's most lasting contribution to U.S. national security policy almost certainly would have been the program of targeted killing through drone strikes with which he has carried out the war on terror. That is definitely not what Obama had in mind when he ran for office.
The time has come then for the reset of Obama's reset. Ben Rhodes, his deputy national security advisor, has been holding meetings on how to revive and rethink engagement policy, which sounds like a painfully modest first step on the path to legacy. Surely there's something bigger and bolder out there. There has been, of course, no lack of kibitzing on the subject. The Brookings Institution has just published a briefing memo titled "Big Bets and Black Swans." This is arguably a paradoxical endeavor because Brookings is the very font of cautious mainstream thinking. In some cases, in fact, the big bets look more like nickel antes. The first of the proposals is that the president should "rebalance judiciously the rebalancing strategy" in China. On defense spending, Brookings advises Obama to "pursue relatively modest savings from additional efficiencies" rather than "seek fairly dramatic changes." In other words, the little bet.
Brookings offers some good advice that Obama probably won't take (a diplomatic restart with Iran, arming Syrian rebels) and some that he might (relaxing sanctions on Cuba, brokering disputes in the South China Sea). Tellingly, Middle East peace, the favorite big bet of all recent presidents, does not make the cut -- for the very good reason that the chances of success are so low. My favorite proposal is that Obama lay out and open for debate a doctrine for the use of new weapons, above all drones, as President Harry Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower sought to do with the atomic bomb. If drones are going to be part of Obama's legacy, then so too should be the establishment of a domestic and international legal and regulatory framework for their use.