President Barack Obama talking with President Raul Castro of Cuba from the Oval Office.

Photographer: Pete Souza/The White House

Obama, Cuba and Politics

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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International relations scholar Stephen Walt gets it all wrong about Barack Obama and Cuba:

The evidence is easy to see: As Greg Sargent notes, Obama’s statement and actions today echo what Hillary Clinton said about Cuba in her recent book, which was written mainly to further her presidential campaign. Indeed, Cuban normalization appears to be, at least on the surface, a pretty obvious electoral ploy for Democrats: interest groups within the party are either indifferent or supportive, and Republican groups have very mixed views.

So the better interpretation of Obama’s decision is that it was driven by the elections that put him in office as well as his interest in seeing a Democrat succeed him.

And that’s a very good thing. Walt’s tweet supposes that presidents would make correct policy choices if only electoral pressures didn’t get in the way. But there’s really no reason to believe that. Presidents don't have special expertise, in foreign relations or any other subject. And even if presidents are willing to listen to experts, there’s still the matter of who those experts are, not to mention problems such as groupthink, which tend to infect insiders in such situations.

Taking into account party constraints and electoral incentives is a powerful reality check. Partisan presidents don’t choose their experts at random (which might simply reinforce their own biases and ignorance); they adopt experts from among party governing professionals, who are themselves constrained by the reality of party-aligned interests. Moreover, because they care about the next election (even if they won’t appear on the ballot), good presidents ask about the political consequences of their actions -- which means, in its most blunt interpretation, whether the action will cause hardship and displeasure to real-life voters.

That’s the kind of constraint we need more of.

  1. And by the way, an easy hint: Anyone talking about "special" interests is probably peddling snake oil.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net