Obama's decisions still hold potential to reshape US ambitions

By Norman Birnbaum Source:Global Times Published: 2014-1-2 21:08:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Many Americans are effective haters who cherish their memories of antagonisms long past. Some 25 or 30 percent of the nation is unreconciled to having an African-American president, despite his white, midwestern roots on his mother's side. Then there is the company he keeps: the educated, independent women, Latinos, the young, artists, entertainers, physicians, scientists, writers, and successful entrepreneurs. Those who hate Obama share the conviction that they no longer rule their own country, and they have lost control of it to groups and persons they do not know or like. No matter what Obama does, they will never view him favorably. 

Obama faces November Congressional elections. To have some freedom of action in the last two years of his second term, he must retain the Democratic majority in the Senate, and at least make large inroads on the Republican majority in the House. At present the Republicans are leading in pre-election polls, and the president's own approval ratings are low. Nonetheless, the chances of recovery are quite large.

The Democrats could even make gains in the south, the heartland of antagonism to Obama. In the 2013  Virginia election, the Democrats, who already have the two Senatorial seats of the state, won back the governorship. That was due to Virginia's African-American population, to newer Latino immigrants, and to the positive views of government of  those working in the moral orbit of Washington, just across the river from northern Virginia.

That, however, will take time. The concentration in the south and west of white fundamentalists poses large obstacles to the Democrats. Obama will have to mobilize more support in the rest of the nation, the industrial midwest, the Democratic cities on the Pacific coast and in the northeast.

And while  Democratic candidates can shape their campaigns to conditions in their states. The president must generate a national message. At present, he is struggling with difficulties in the introduction of his health insurance reform. By November, these will be behind him.

A much more critical problem for the president is the very slow rate of reduction of unemployment. The Congressional and Senatorial Republicans block as much federal spending as they can.

US capital is not inclined to come to the nation's help by drawing on their large reserves of cash. The weakening of Republicans in Congress is, then, a precondition of economic success for the president, to enable more government spending as an economic stimulus. Obama has announced a project to reduce growing American inequality. There is a large amount of  presidential authority not subject to Congressional limitation. It remains to be seen how vigorously he will use his executive powers in the economic sphere.

The president has had two recent triumphs in foreign affairs. He reached an agreement with Russia on disposing of Syrian chemical weaponry, which avoided an imminent US attack on Syria. After direct and secret negotiations with Iran, newer and larger negotiations on its nuclear capacity have begun.

The European allies of the US, in particular, are interested in the success of the Iran negotiations. Israel and its supporters in the US are intent on sabotaging the talks, but Obama has resisted their pressure. His steadiness has allowed the divisions in the US Jewish community to deepen. Many in the American military and political apparatus, in alignment with counterparts in Israel, oppose the Israeli government's obsession with Iran.

To succeed in a policy of restraint in the Mideast, Obama will have to mobilize the war weariness and skepticism of the US public. That does not yet extend to covert operations, open ones like drone strikes, and widespread but relatively small-scale interventions of all kinds which have been sold to the public as necessary elements of "national security." Obama is addicted to these.

He has been much less willing to ask the public for support in foreign and military policy than in domestic policy, preferring to rely on the public's habit, formed over the past century, of giving presidents discretion in these matters. With Obama under attack for his reluctance to undertake major military engagements, he requires the public support for a coherent US policy of reduction in our overextended ambitions.

His reluctance to be explicit has not made it possible for him to proceed step by step, but has made every step an occasion for confrontation with the still large party of permanent war. The year of 2014 could be put to good use by the president were he to explain to the public that the epoch of US hegemony is over. Whether he will dare to say so is a question he is pondering, but it cannot be avoided in US relations with other major powers like the EU, China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa.

Much, then, remains open in the remaining years of Obama's presidency. The notion that he is now unable to exert leadership or take major initiatives is nonsense, circulated by his adversaries. It is for the president to confront an open future and shape political circumstances. Currently on vacation in Hawaii, his boyhood home, he is no doubt reflecting on his alternatives.

The author is professor emeritus of Georgetown University Law Center. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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