Barack Obama’s Crisis-Driven Second Term

From roughly March 6 on the White House has been whiplashed from one foreign policy and national security crisis to another.

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Mark Wilson / Getty Images

President Obama makes a statement at the White House on April 16, 2013 in Washington, DC.

In his January inaugural address sketching out the promise of a second presidential term, here are some things Barack Obama did not mention: Surveillance. Drones. Syria. Chechnya. North Korea. Benghazi. Guantanamo.

And yet from roughly March 6, the day Rand Paul staged his 13-hour Senate filibuster to protest Obama’s drone policies, the White House has been whiplashed from one foreign policy and national security crisis to another. Facing a near constant state of emergency, Obama has been hard-pressed to promote his message on issues like gun control, immigration, health care and the economy.

This week is a case in point. Today Obama will unveil a new set of bold executive actions designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions thought to fuel climate change. Yesterday, the Senate easily approved an amendment to its immigration bill that suggests the law will pass that chamber. And as of yesterday, the implementation of Obamacare is less than 100 days away.

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But the national media remains obsessed with the cinematic saga of Edward Snowden, believed to be hiding out in Moscow in preparation for an escape to Latin America. For weeks now, Snowden and his leaks about government surveillance have drowned out competing domestic stories.

“It’s certainly true that you’ve had a surprising number of foreign policy crises,” says Tommy Vietor, who until recently was a White House national security spokesman. “It distracts media attention, and the White House from what they want to be talking about, which is the economy and jobs.” Vietor added that today’s climate change announcement is “enormously important… I hope it gets the attention that it deserves.”

Some of the issues now barging in on Obama’s presidency are ones he spent much of his first term holding at bay. His failure to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp had fallen out of the news until inmates there recently began dramatic hunger strikes requiring force feeding. For two years, Obama kept his distance from Syria’s brutal civil war, until Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons and his recent, Hezbollah-aided battlefield gains forced Obama to adopt a tougher policy.

Meanwhile Rand Paul’s filibuster and CIA director John Brennan’s confirmation hearings, shed new light on Obama’s reliance on drone strikes against suspected terrorists, and the costs and benefits of that policy. That debate—along with the latest flurry around Guantanamo–dredged up still-unresolved questions about American power and values in the post-9/11 era, and prompted Obama to deliver a national address on his counterterror policies.

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Other post-9/11 issues were raised by the April 15 Boston marathon bombings, which renewed hard questions about surveillance of Muslim communities and the vigilance of U.S. security agencies. The awful drama in Boston also obscured almost entirely action in Congress on a gun control package that had been one of Obama’s top priorities.

The crises cycle through so quickly that one week’s high drama is nearly forgotten the next, like the brief interlude in April when war with North Korea suddenly seemed fathomable. The new obsession over the NSA leaks has almost blotted out the short-lived frenzy over the Justice Department’s surveillance of Fox News reporter James Rosen. And don’t forget the week or so of mania over the Benghazi talking points, which for a moment had some Republicans talking about impeachment but in retrospect looks a little like Geraldo Rivera’s opening of Al Capone’s vault.

And now comes Edward Snowden, and his leaks about government collection of domestic phone call data, surveillance of communications by terror suspects overseas, and alleged American spying on rivals and allies alike. Snowden’s overseas odyssey this week has also focused new attention on tensions in America’s relationships with China and Russia.

But driving the news isn’t essential to presidential success. Obama’s poll numbers have been resilient over the past few weeks. Immigration reform, another of his key priorities, is steadily advancing. The economy continues to improve. And action on climate change would address one of his major unfulfilled promises from his 2008 campaign.

Vietor recalls that Obama has endured crisis periods before–including early 2011, when the Japanese tsunami and the beginning of the Arab Spring fixated the media and the White House–and regained the political initiative. But he worries about his former White House colleagues, and the constant middle-of-the-night calls from the Situation Room he knows they’re fielding. “It’s been tough for those guys,” Vietor says. But with Edward Snowden still on the run, Syria descending into chaos and terrorists continuing to plot against America, the days of crisis may not be over anytime soon.

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