There is not much optimism in the White House about the results of the midterm election, and even more pronounced is the pessimism that prevails among the Democratic candidates, who are clearly preoccupied with having been abandoned by the electorate as a consequence of the significant loss of consensus with respect to Obama and his presidency. The party is clearly on the defensive.
The majority of Democratic candidates — in speeches, debates and campaign material — haves avoided highlighting any proximity to the president, to the point where candidates have avoided asking for his support, unlike what happens when a president is popular.
The fate of the last quarter of Obama’s two-term mandate will depend in large part on the November 4 election, and in particular how things go with the Senate, where Democrats have held 55 seats as compared to the 45 held by the Republican Party. In the Senate, 36 of the 100 seats are in play, and the polls predicted the following picture: 11 definitely going to the Democrats and 16 to the Republican Party, whereas the outcome for nine seats was considered uncertain. The fact is that it would be enough for the Republicans to gain six seats in the Senate in order to clinch the majority,* thus putting the president’s party in the minority in both houses of the legislative branch. At this point, it’s interesting to ask ourselves what the repercussions of this political turn will be on Washington’s foreign policy.
Sure, it is important to recall that the American political system is presidential and not parliamentary, and that it’s not the first time that a president finds himself needing to square off with a Congress dominated by the opposition, a situation that instills compromise and negotiations between the White House and Capitol Hill, but does not necessarily imply governmental paralysis.
This is true in theory, but in practice we will take into consideration the evolution — although perhaps we should be talking about the involution — of the American political system in the sense of a total contraposition, a wall against a wall that makes it very difficult to achieve those discussions that allow the system to function even if there is a divergence between the executive and legislative branches.
The shift, the exacerbation, is a result of two interconnected factors. On the one hand is the radicalization of the Republican Party, whose internal moderate wing was eliminated, or silenced by the ideological hegemony of the tea party, a movement that combines neoliberalism, anti-government extremism, and radical positions on the subjects of homosexuality and the right of citizens to bear arms, even assault weapons. Here, with regard to President Obama, we find a rejection of a political nature; the president is accused of being not only “liberal” (as he effectively is, even if in a moderate, centrist way), but even being a socialist, a real and actual insult in American political terminology. But here we also find the implicit rejection based not on his policies but on his race, which was true from the outset, before Obama implemented his political program. In certain settings, his presence in the White House was considered illegitimate and unbearable.
In the face of this political shift, it thus does not help at all that, thanks to Obama, we faced a scary economic crisis, and that today the country is growing at highly respectable levels. It does not help that it was under his presidency that America’s number one enemy, Osama bin Laden, was killed in a Navy Seal operation.
A not insignificant part of the American electorate is counting the hours until Obama’s exit, and will take the opportunity during these elections to ensure that in the latter part of his presidency, he ends up virtually frozen, from a political point of view, a “lame duck.”
In foreign policy, the most significant topic is the nuclear negotiation with Iran. Lately, there are many signals that make us believe Obama has decided to push for a solution, so he can achieve stability in the Middle East and claim significant achievement in his presidency. Sure, a Republican Senate could make it even more difficult for the president to get an agreement passed, an agreement which Congress, notoriously the Israel line (better yet, the Likud line) has not already raised a strong blockade attack. We should say, however, that things could end up being more difficult, but not impossible. The president still retains tools like the presidential veto, in particular, granting exceptions or “waivers” to sanctions, in such a way that he could evade the humiliating grip of a hostile Congress.
But here is where Obama’s probably most real and profound limitation as president emerges: his almost compulsive search for dialogue and compromise, and his effort to always present himself as a president of all Americans, not just some of them; attitudes which in an America of another time, where political face-offs alternated with bipartisan compromise, were qualities, but which today are devastating limitations, given that in order to have a dialogue, the presence of available ideological and political interlocutors is indispensable.
The negotiations with Iran (with its important consequences for the entire Middle East) are nearing their expiration date of November 24, and will probably be the last opportunity for Obama to prevent a historical judgment that sadly recaps the contradictions between his intellectual and humane qualities and a substantial lack of both political talent and courage.
*Editor’s Note: The November 4 election resulted in seven Senate seats for the Republican Party.
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