Passage of the health care bill is obviously of primary import inside the U.S., but it will also have an impact on U.S. foreign policy. The stakes in the health care debate were extremely high and clearly out of proportion for a bill that was somodest and moderate in nature. Nonetheless, Obama all but wagered his presidency on passage of the bill. Had the bill failed, which seemed very likely in January, Obama’s presidency would have been reeling. He would have been viewed as ineffective, even a failure, before his first term was halfway over. The bill, of course, passed, reinvigorating and strengthening the president.
The impact of the bill on foreign policy will be felt primarily in two ways. First, the passage of the bill will probably make Obama more popular internationally, particularly in Europe. Many in Europe view this bill as long overdue and a sign that the U.S. is becoming a more normal country. This perception is based on misunderstanding the scope and likely impact of the bill, but is nonetheless significant. Broad popularity in Europe gives Obama the political space to push European governments to support American policies. This popularity has been in danger of declining in recent months due largely to European concerns that Obama is not all that interested in Europe , but now that decline seems to be unlikely. Obama’s election was an enormous boost to the U.S. throughout the world; passage of the health care bill will have a similar effect, but in a smaller and more localized way.
Second, and probably more significantly, Obama had been focusing a great deal of time on this bill in recent months. During this time foreign policy, while not quite on the back burner, was less of a priority. This was not, as some have suggested, negligent on the part of the president, but a reflection of political realities in the U.S. Except for in the most extreme circumstances domestic issues are always more important to Americans, and thus to their presidents. While jobs and the economy, not health care specifically, had been, and remains, the most pressing domestic political issue facing the U.S., Obama’s success on health care will allow him to focus more on foreign policy, and to do so from a position of strength.
Presidents, such as Bill Clinton during his last six years in office, frequently turn their focus to foreign policy after failing on domestic issues. Obama will be different as he will return his focus to foreign policy after a big domestic achievement, thus making him more able to win support in congress for his foreign policy while being able to devote more time to international problems.
A stronger, both domestically and internationally, President Obama with a renewed ability to focus on foreign policy may be a significant development, but it also may amount to little. For Obama, the health care debate and process was a learning experience, but it is not yet clear what he has learned. What he probably should have learned is that the positions for which he advocated in his campaign are popular with the American people and that the change he promised is something that the people still want. This should be applied to foreign policy as well. If passing the health care bill makes the president bolder, and more comfortable pursuing the change he promised in his campaign, it will have an impact beyond America’s borders.