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How Obama shifted the discourse

Washington: All eyes in India are, not surprisingly, focused on the outcome of the general elections of the 16th Lok Sabha, expected later this week.

But in the US, elections usually refers to what is called the ‘midterm’ poll the one that takes place between the presidential elections, but which can be equally portentous because this involves the election to the entire lower House of Representatives which has a two-year term, some 33 members of the upper House, the Senate and some 36 of the 50 governors of various states.

The US politics is settling at a place which is a little bit to the left of where it was in the 2012 presidential poll. Pic/AFP
The US politics is settling at a place which is a little bit to the left of where it was in the 2012 presidential poll. Pic/AFP

Already, the party primaries to elect the candidates for the November election have begun. This year, the goal of the opposition Republican Party is to recapture the US Senate. Should that happen, the Obama presidency which is already lame-duck would be severely constrained, leaving the president and the Democrats even lesser room to manoeuvre than he has now.

This would almost make it appear that Obama has been a failure. But not a few observers here see his presidency as being as transformational as had been promised when he first came to office. It is ‘transformational’ because by the end of his term, the US will be on a path quite different from which it was when he came to office.

The most obvious way is in the fact that the US will no longer be at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it will also be remembered for bringing the US debate back to issues of fairness and equality. It is well-known that in the past decade, the US has undergone an economic crisis, and that the divide between the rich and the poor has been getting bigger and bigger.

Obama has sought to address this issue by pushing what is likely to be seen as the centre-point of his achievement the Affordable Care Act, which addresses the shameful fact that a large number of poor Americans do not have health insurance. He has called for an upward revision of minimum wages in the country and made a case for the regulation of the financial sector.

It is true that Obama may not be able to leave his mark on other issues he had sought to address, such as climate change, nuclear weapons or the Israel-Palestine issue. It is also true that his administration has not been able to stand up to the Russians in Crimea, or appeared weak-kneed with Syria, Iran and China.

But Obama is reflecting the deep war weariness of the US and the reality of its fiscal position. While the east coast foreign policy establishment may wring its hands over the US ‘surrendering’ its role as the leader of the world, what Obama has done is to readjust Washington’s policies to the realities of the day.

He has been realistic in cutting the US policy coat according to the cloth, even if it has annoyed the policy wonks back home. Indeed, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, Obama has not made any major blunder in the area of foreign policy, despite the very treacherous waters in East Asia and Eastern Europe.

Indeed, it has pushed ahead with its efforts to neutralise Iran, despite opposition from Israel and Saudi Arabia. The situation is not an easy one — getting Russia to behave in Ukraine runs the risk of pushing it into the arms of China.

Likewise, supporting the South-east and East Asian nations against China could inadvertently lead to an unsustainable ‘new containment’ policy towards China. Too little pressure leads to charges of appeasement and too much runs the risk of involving the US in a no-win fight against two formidable adversaries.

The Republican fire-eaters have not made too much noise about foreign policy issues considering their own role in the Iraq fiasco. They are resorting to low-level tactics such as the inquiry into the Benghazi episode that led to the death of the US ambassador there in 2012.

They may claim that they will repeal the Affordable Care Act, but that is unlikely as the act provides more and more Americans with health insurance coverage.

Likewise, if Obama is able to push the Republicans to raise the minimum wages in the country, he would be doing his country a huge favour because of the deepening divide between the rich and poor in the world’s richest country does not augur well for its future.

Already, it is clear from the primaries that the Republican party is seeking to return to the middle ground from the excesses of the past when it was held hostage by the right-wing Tea Party.

The conservative wing of the party led by the House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell are very much in control, threatening to isolate all radical Tea Party supporters challenging the party establishment.

In that sense the US politics is settling at a place which is a little bit to the left of where it was in the 2012 presidential poll. Obama will, of course, remain president till 2016 and people in the US and around the world will look to him for leadership.

But the 2014 mid-term elections will set the stage which could be the really transformational election the US presidential poll of 2016.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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  • Guest13-May-2014

    A more diffident, inward looking United States is not good news for India and many other nations in the region that were looking forward to the pivot to Asia becoming a reality.

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