There are two things to say about the electoral effect of the Iran deal.
Barck Obama isn’t going to be up for re-election. Still, his approval rating will matter for Democrats in both 2014 and 2016.
The first thing—and it’s correct, as far as it goes—is that the deal won’t have any electoral effect, whatever happens. Smart analysts know that voters just don’t care very much about foreign policy. And this one … well, it’s pretty distant from the concerns of most voters. Iran’s nuclear program has been in the news for a long time, but it’s not headline stuff for the most part. No matter how much of a fuss there is about it in the press this week, most voters won’t engage. The blunt truth is that this too will be gone from the headlines before very long, anyway.
Without most voters paying any attention to it, that leaves only the most politically attentive, and they’ll divide the way they always do: as long as the balance of the coverage isn’t radically lopsided, Democrats will be inclined to support the administration, and Republicans will be inclined to oppose it. It’s true that some Democrats in Congress are opposed to the deal, but for most rank-and-file Democrats, the president is the opinion leader who matters.
In short—no change in the president’s approval rating. No electoral effects in either 2014 or 2016.
We can even push that analysis a bit farther. No doubt some Republicans will note the break between the Obama administration and Benjamin Netanyahu and predict that American Jews will soon be flipping to the GOP. But that’s an old (at least 40 years old) saw that has been repeatedly exposed as wishful thinking. There’s no reason to expect this time to be any different; after all, it’s hardly the first occasion where Netanyahu has hit hard against Obama, It didn’t seem to make any difference in 2012, despite Mitt Romney’s best wishes.
So from the perspective of “what effect will this deal have?” it’s easy to dismiss it entirely.
And yet that’s not the only way to look at the issue. There’s more to it, and looking more carefully reveals important things about the presidency.
Because the choices for Obama aren’t confined to deal-or-no-deal. We know about the “deal” side, since that’s what happened. But what if no agreement was reached? The alternative probably wasn’t the status quo of sanctions and a not-yet-successful nuclear program. At least not in the long run. Instead, the alternative might well be war with Iran. And that really could be an electoral disaster for Democrats. Voters do care about foreign policy when it involves a war they really don’t like. These wars— Korea, Vietnam, Iraq—can devastate a president’s approval ratings and, if they continue, an entire presidency. As Matt Yglesias points out, this particular potential war would be a big threat to the United States (and world) economy. And we all know that economic disaster is a recipe for electoral disaster.
Granted, there may have been many options for the Obama administration other than this particular deal and a shooting war; perhaps there was another deal available, and there’s always the option of just living with an Iranian bomb. Still, those options had costs, too. Moreover, electoral effects are not the only thing a president should care about.
However, electoral effects are certainly one thing that presidents do care about, whether we want them to or not. There’s good reason they do: after all, presidents (and their larger presidencies, which are staffed with partisans who care very much about future elections) are at least to a large extent creatures of their parties; if they were not, they couldn’t have been nominated in the first place.
Presidents seeking a legacy—instead of (for example) calculating what they should do in order that voters will reward their party—are dangerous animals. They can be tempted by history or some other such abstraction, instead of doing the things which made their presidencies successes in the first place.
But to the extent that presidents do care about electoral effects, what this discussion suggests is that the biggest imperative is pretty simple: avoid disasters. Including economic downturns, which might be easier said than done. But also including avoiding long, unpopular wars. And that’s one that presidents usually should be able to accomplish.
Working against that electoral incentive, however, may be all sorts of other pressures. Part of a president’s electoral coalition may actively seek a war, or a policy with a high risk of ending up in war. Warmongers may have the upper hand in Congress. Even within the executive branch, policies which risk war may have considerable bureaucratic advantages in some situations.
Good presidenting must balance all of that—useful information which might inform successful public policy may be found from Members of Congress, from interest groups, or from the bureaucracy just as much as it may be found from electoral cues.
The one thing that smart presidents will not worry very much about is what most of the press is focused on right now: the immediate spin war. Because that’s not going matter at all.
Good presidents will certainly care about the long-term electoral effects of policy choices. And that often means understanding the real alternatives—and when one plausible alternative is a long, costly, unpopular war, then finding a better policy is almost always a good idea, at least when it comes to what will happen on the next Election Day. So when the Iran deal fades from the headlines, and the negotiations over a longer-term deal continue, without any apparent effect on Barack Obama’s approval ratings, just remember: no effect is, after all, a whole lot better than a disaster.
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