President Obama's speech to the United Nations on Tuesday made one thing clear. The question of his second term so far appears to be: "Can rational argument overcome extreme unilateralists?" And the answer is: "Not necessarily."
It's a good thing Obama gave his speech this Tuesday and not next. Next Tuesday, his exhortation that the world come together to resolve its disputes might have sounded a little hollow, given that he'd might be stepping off Amtrak and hailing a cab in the wake of a government shutdown. We can't figure out how to run our government, he'd be saying, But let us tell you how to run the world.
It was impossible not to consider Obama's speech — a deeply important one, suggesting a significant thaw in tensions between the United States and Iran — outside of that domestic political context. Obama stood before a large group that was largely not comprised of his peers, making a case for rationality and for his own priorities. It was a State of the Union speech, basically, presented to an even less sympathetic audience than the Republicans on Capitol Hill he spoke to in January. Here is the path that my base believes is the best way to proceed, he said. We will do what we can to move in that direction, but we are willing to work with this body to do so.
Obama's position on Syria (and Russia and Iran and Israel) is like his position on Obamacare: this is what we intend to do, but if you have a better idea, we will certainly entertain it. For years, Republicans promised that they had better ideas, only last week articulating them, which allowed the president to accurately dismiss critiques as being motivated by politics, not policy. It's similar to the way he backed into a resolution of the American conflict with Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry offered a replacement that worked, meaning that the United States could set aside its existing plan, bombing stuff.
What's interesting is that on Capitol Hill, a rogue actor has nearly as much veto power as Russia or China does at the Security Council, but without the same sort of diplomatic encumbrances. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas doesn't need to worry about the effects of his obstructionism on his trade pact with the United Staates, so he's free to drag his feet as long as he can in service to his smaller base. (The Tea Party, not Texas.)
Last week, Speaker John Boehner released an ad on the web asking why Obama was willing to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin to resolve that country's obstructionism, but not with the Republican Party to work out a deal on funding the government. The answer was partly that Boehner's equivalence was disingenuous: the president and Congressional Democrats have consistently tried to figure out what the full funding package could comprise. And it was disingenuous because Obama's unwillingness to horse-trade on the debt ceiling was largely an after-effect of the difficulty that arose when the ceiling was subjected to similar debate in 2011. But Boehner's argument was primarily hollow because high-level negotiation itself is a far less common occurrence between heads of state than in Washington. Proxies for governments meeting to avoid military conflict is a novelty, as Obama pointed out today, not a feature of a longstanding system of governance. Sitting down with Iran in particular is not something that has always been possible. This is not two guys trying to resolve a petty dispute predicated on obstreperous rhetoric. It's a breakthrough.
The Cruz-Tea Party obstacle is vastly different than the ones that exist between the United States' foreign policy goals and reality, of course. But the approach that the president wants to employ is the same, part of the deal when you ask that people elect you president of the United States: how to figure out how to convince groups of others to do what you want. For that matter, it's also what you sign up for when you ask your peers to name you Speaker of the House. The thing that's hardest for rational consensus-building to surmount is obstinate opposition from a single party. How is a democrat supposed to overcome that?