The top domestic and foreign policy priorities likely to dominate the remainder of President Obama's term underscore how much the choices of even the world's most powerful person are shaped by the conditions he inherits.
The political environment Obama inherited on foreign policy is expanding his running room as he pursues a nuclear-disarmament deal with Iran, now his top international priority. Conversely, the domestic political environment that greeted Obama — and his failure to reshape it through his first term or reelection — has narrowed his margin of error for steadying his beleaguered health reform law, his top priority at home.
Obama has room to maneuver on the nuclear initiative not because Americans trust the new Iranian government, or the president's diplomatic skills, or are particularly confident that diplomacy will succeed. Obama's advantage, rather, is that the alternative has been discredited. Amid widespread disillusionment over the American military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama is benefiting from the shattered public belief that American force can pacify the Middle East.
That's the key new element in a debate that otherwise settled quickly into familiar grooves after the agreement last weekend with Iran to curb its nuclear program in return for a temporary relaxation in economic sanctions. Since the U.S. and five other powers concluded the deal with Iran, conservative critics have besieged Obama with accusations that he is naive and weak, complete with the inevitable references to Munich and appeasement of Nazi Germany before World War II. Plenty of congressional Democrats, plus key Mideast allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, are leery (if not openly hostile), too.