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President Obama is fighting to correct a disastrous rollout of the healthcare law which is described as his defining domestic policy issue. At the same, another story is unfolding this week that could shape the president's legacy. Diplomats from the United States and other countries are going to meet this week for the next round of negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. However the talks turn out, they could shape history's view of this president.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Presidential second terms are often defined by foreign rather than domestic affairs, for better or worse. Ronald Reagan had his struggles in Central America and his breakthrough with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. President George W Bush saw his occupation of Iraq become a bloodbath and his troop surge help contain the violence there.
Historian Julian Zelizer, of Princeton, says one reason foreign policy often moves to the front burner in a second term is that domestic policy goals become much harder to reach.
JULIAN ZELIZER: Even after reelection, presidents don't have that same kind of enthusiasm behind them in the next four years. Congress is often much more willing to cause problems for a president on the domestic front. They're just not as scared of him.
SHAPIRO: That's certainly true of President Obama. His gun bill fell to a filibuster in the Senate. Immigration seems stuck in the House. Pretty much everyone in Congress has panned the way his healthcare plan rolled out.
ZELIZER: I think foreign policy just isn't as much under the control of Congress, so there's always that opportunity, even when things get very stifled for second term presidents.
SHAPIRO: Right now the White House sees an opportunity with Iran. Here was National Security Advisor Susan Rice in a speech last week at the Middle East Institute.
SUSAN RICE: For the first time in many years, we are seeing signs that Iran's leadership may be serious about a nuclear deal.
SHAPIRO: Even in this foreign arena, Congress could still block a deal. Many Republicans and some Democrats think a new round of sanctions would force Iran to offer more at the negotiating table.
Republican Ed Royce is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He spoke at a hearing last week.
REPRESENTATIVE ED ROYCE: There is growing concern in Congress that the outlines of this agreement do not meet the standards needed to protect the United States and to protect U.S. allies.
SHAPIRO: President Obama sent his Secretary of State to Congress to try to talk lawmakers out of passing new sanctions. The president said new sanctions would just take the U.S. down a path that eventually leads to war. At a White House press conference, Obama urged people to give this potential deal a chance to work.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If it turns out six months from now that they're not serious, we can crank, we can dial those sanctions right back up.
SHAPIRO: So a legacy-defining deal with Iran is far from a sure thing. Iran expert Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group puts the chances slightly above 50 percent. And he says if this does happen, it could profoundly shape history's view of this president.
CLIFF KUPCHAN: A success in Iran would in effect create a trilogy. Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran. I think Iran would be central to it though. In the first two cases, he cleaned up somebody else's mess - he finished other people's wars. Here his sanctions diplomacy would have led to his success.
SHAPIRO: It's a tantalizing hope for the White House and one that plays into a sunny West Wing narrative for the region that includes Syria giving up its chemical weapons and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process moving forward for the first time in years.
But Iran expert Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy warns that even if the U.S. signs a deal with Iran and Congress gets on board, that deal may be less of a victory than the White House hopes.
PATRICK CLAWSON: Which is to say that the two sides interpret the agreement differently, the two sides have different expectations, that each side thinks the other side isn't fully living up to the agreement and that there's a bitter taste left in everybody's mouth about where this ends up. And there's a continuing crisis, sometimes low level, sometimes bubbling more to the surface.
SHAPIRO: Clawson says past presidents may have looked to the Mideast as a source of redemption. But it has proved more often a region of dashed expectations.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.
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