I’d like to apologize to American voters. I’m one of the 5 percent. The 5 percent, that is, who vote in presidential elections based on the foreign policy views of the candidates. It might seem to the other 95 percent of you that we pull the strings. At his taped fund-raiser, for example, Mitt Romney complained that the common folk weren’t asking him enough foreign policy questions. It certainly must appear as if we control presidents once they’re elected — after their first year in office, all we read about is that they’re attending some fancy-pants summit meeting or using force somewhere exotic.
While I wish that this were true, the reality is a lot more complex. Really, those of us paying attention to foreign policy are trying to do the rest of you a favor. Maybe if some of you paid attention to the rest of the world as well, American presidents would be more cautious about expending blood and treasure abroad. That sounds crazy, but it’s true.
I was being generous with the “5 percent” appellation. Poll after poll shows that when Americans are asked what they consider the most important issue in presidential campaigns, an overwhelming majority choose the economy. Answers related to foreign policy or national security typically yield between 3 and 5 percent.
Many pollsters don’t even bother asking about international issues because it seems manifestly obvious that they’re not terribly important. When pollsters prod Americans about their foreign policy views, the results are clear: they want the government to focus less on the rest of the world.
Politicians are not blind to these numbers. Short of a war or other violent attacks on American installations, foreign policy rarely takes center stage during presidential elections. Presidential candidates almost always campaign on how they intend to jump-start the economy.
It must be maddening to voters, then, that about a year or two after they are elected, presidents seem to devote an ever increasing amount of time to the rest of the world. The Balkans appeared to consume the Clinton administration. George W. Bush launched two wars during his tenure. Barack Obama has devoted a considerable amount of his time to revamping counterterrorism policies, rebalancing attention to the Pacific Rim, prosecuting a war in Libya — and killing Osama bin Laden.
Why do presidents campaign as economic wizards but govern as foreign policy leaders? The first thing to realize is that presidents are not doing this on purpose. Their focus on foreign policy actually reveals the constraints on the modern American presidency.
On most big economic matters, presidents cannot act alone. Congress has to approve things like budgets and taxes, and in case you haven’t noticed, Congress has become increasingly sclerotic. During the 1950s, for example, Congress passed an average of 800 laws per session; in the post-cold-war era, that figure has declined to fewer than 400. Based on the 112th Congress, that figure will continue to decline in the future.
The party not in the White House has been increasingly obstructionist — and if you doubt this, look up the filibuster statistics. Any president trying to accomplish something with Congressional approval either needs a majority of the House and 60 votes in the Senate, or needs to compromise with an opposition party ever further away on the ideological spectrum. Short of a landslide, presidents have a brief honeymoon period in which to push major domestic policy initiatives through Congress.