Barack Obama has had an exceptionally lucky first year. All newly elected U.S. presidents arrive in office hoping to avoid the unforeseen foreign-policy crises that upend their domestic agendas. In John Kennedy's first year, he stumbled into the Bay of Pigs, and the Soviets built the Berlin Wall. Lyndon Johnson landed the Gulf of Tonkin incident and China's first atomic test. Gerald Ford got the fall of Saigon. Ronald Reagan got martial law in Poland and the assassination of Anwar Sadat. George H.W. Bush got Tiananmen Square. Bill Clinton got the first World Trade Center bombing, a crisis in Somalia, and the withdrawal of North Korea from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. George W. Bush got 9/11. President Obama has avoided the foreign-policy blowups that push an administration off balance. His luck isn't likely to last.
Obama has good reason to focus on problems at home. Approval ratings for his handling of the U.S. economy and for his overall job performance have moved lower in striking parallel. Given the political complexities of health care, banking, energy and immigration reform, a $787 billion stimulus package, and 10.2 percent unemployment, domestic policy has demanded the president's attention. With midterm elections next November and the likelihood of reduced Democratic legislative majorities in 2011, the administration is wise to move quickly on these issues.
On foreign policy, the goal has been to prevent chronic problems from becoming attention-absorbing crises. To ensure that low-level trade conflicts with China don't poison the broader bilateral relationship, the administration has picked its fights carefully. To avoid pointless confrontation with Moscow, the White House pledged to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations. Obama signaled a willingness to talk directly with Iran about its nuclear program. It limited administration criticism of the country's disputed presidential election last summer and the government crackdown that followed.
With considerable luck, the strategy has so far proven a success. Conditions in Afghanistan deteriorated sharply in 2009 but have not yet descended into full-blown crisis. Iraq is moving toward its next round of elections. Civilian government has survived in Pakistan. The Korean peninsula is no more dangerous than usual. Relations with Japan have undergone a stress test as the Obama administration and a new government in Tokyo learn to read one another's signals. Yet blow-ups have been averted, and the president has focused much of his time and energy on economic stimulus and the politics of health care.
But the president's stopover in China last week revealed that, in 2010, it won't be so easy to keep foreign and domestic challenges in separate boxes. It's not that the visit went badly. Only the president's most naive admirers and cynical partisan critics say they expected the trip might yield some kind of breakthrough. China won't revalue its currency or reverse course on opposition to Iran sanctions simply because Obama is engaging and a forceful speaker. Yet critics from across the political spectrum have cast the trip as a failure because the president returned home without trophies in hand.
The criticism tells us two things. First, even the left will hold Obama to a tougher standard next year, because America's jobless recovery provides floundering Republicans with potent election-year ammunition and strips Democrats of political cover. Second, nowhere do America's foreign and domestic policies collide with greater force than in U.S.-Chinese relations. U.S. lawmakers will work hard in 2010 to avoid blame for lingering unemployment, and China's trade and currency policies make for obvious scapegoats.
China will add to the problem. Like Obama, President Hu Jintao wants to avoid foreign-policy conflicts and to focus on job creation, sustainable growth and long-term economic reform. But the surge of national pride across China as the country continues its rise onto the international stage leaves the Chinese people ever less tolerant of criticism from Washington. The current series of trade disputes over minor issues might finally provoke a broader political confrontation, bringing a distinct chill to the world's most important bilateral relationship.
Obama's troubles will extend well beyond China. It will take months to deploy thousands of new troops the president is about to send to Afghanistan, inviting bitter criticism from the war-weary left before reinforcements have time to produce results. The president will also spend much of 2010 in negotiation with reluctant allies over sanctions against an increasingly belligerent Iran.
Finally, next month's Copenhagen climate change summit probably won't produce tangible progress on emissions reductions. That will turn the world's focus toward an Obama administration push to persuade Congress to impose new burdens on U.S. carbon emitters during both an election year and a slow economic recovery. Republicans and conservative Democrats won't like the president's plan. Progressive Democrats and foreign governments won't like his compromises.
President Obama has endured a demanding first year. But history and several brewing international storms suggest that 2009 will soon seem a much simpler time.