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The 2008 presidential race ultimately turned not on the war in Iraq (as many of us thought it would 18 months ago) but on the dramatic crisis in the nations financial industry. So it isnt surprising that the health of the nations economy an economy plagued by rising unemployment, the specter of large corporate bankruptcies and the threat of deflation has become the top priority of the incoming Obama administration.
But politics, given both recent history and the events in the Middle East over the past week, takes interesting twists and turns, and if recent history is any guide, incoming President Barack Obama may find himself spending more of his time and energy on foreign policy than on any other single issue within the next year or two.
George W. Bush, after all, was initially elected to cut taxes, to turn the page on Bill Clintons personal failings and to reverse the countrys cultural drift to the left, not necessarily to begin a war in Iraq.
Four years later, Bush won a second term on his perceived ability to lead the fight in the war on terror, only to have to deal with domestic crises from Hurricane Katrina to a slowing economy and a mortgage crisis and financial meltdown.
But twisting priorities didnt start with the current President Bush. Jimmy Carter, for example, was elected after Watergate to clean up Washington, D.C., but ended up looking overwhelmed by an energy shortage, stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis.
Vice President-elect Joseph Biden surely was correct when he predicted during the presidential campaign that Obama would be tested by one of Americas adversaries shortly after his inauguration.
The current list of international problems includes a head-spinning litany of instabilities, dangerous personalities, longtime animosities and potential hot spots that would make even the most experienced diplomat shake her head in concern.
Islamic terrorism continues to be a serious danger, whether domestically or internationally, as the recent attack in Mumbai, India, demonstrated.
Bushs initial optimistic assessment of Vladimir Putin now looks like a self- delusion, as Russia talks increasingly tough about missiles and flexes its muscle. After invading Georgia (and using the same old Soviet-style excuses and accusations), the Russian government could well crank up the heat on Ukraine (indeed, it already is doing so), trying to take advantage of ethnic and political differences in the country.
Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez is seeking to change his countrys constitution to allow himself to stay in office, and he continues to try to cause trouble in South America, where a number of left-of-center governments have backed away from the free market and may be backing away from democratic principles. Chavezs over-the-top rhetoric makes him easy to dismiss, but the Obama administration may still have to figure out how to deal with him, especially if he seeks to destabilize U.S. allies in the region.