Obama faces challenges of deep state after Union address

By Norman Birnbaum Source:Globaltimes.cn Published: 2015-2-2 20:00:49

Perhaps the most significant circumstance of the presidential State of the Union speech to Congress on 20 January was its relatively small television audience. Large segments of the US public obviously regard our politics as Macbeth thought of life, "A tale full of sound and fury, told by an idiot and signifying nothing." 

President Barack Obama, the Democratic Party minorities in House and Senate and their Republican antagonists, including a majority of the governors and the state legislatures obviously do not think so. The Republicans rightly declare that they won the last Congressional elections and did well in the state elections. They prefer not to dwell on the 63 percent of the electorate that did not vote. Obama spoke to the 60 percent electorate of which a majority put him in office in 2008 and re-elected him in 2012.

In domestic matters, the president evoked a major contradiction. The economy and employment are recovering, but wages are not. Obama proposes increasing taxes on the wealthy and on profitable firms,  reducing taxes for ordinary wage earners, making the initial years of higher education free, and stimulating the economy with a large infrastructure program. He will use his statutory powers to keep some 5 million immigrants from being deported. He is insistent on extending environmental regulation. There is little chance of agreement or even compromise, with the Republicans. In fact, the Congressional Republicans are contemplating judicial action against the president on the immigration issue. Obama faces criticism in his own party on issues of trade, as many Democrats think him insufficiently protective of domestic employment. 

Obama is drawing clear lines of difference with the Republicans in anticipation of the presidential and Congressional elections of 2016. The Republicans are divided between a large group hostile to "big government" and a smaller one fearing that too close a Republican identification with large corporations and banks will again cost them the presidency, and might also endanger the narrow Republican Senate majority. 

There are profound cultural and ethnic conflicts as well. The Republicans are a party of aging white men unable to win the votes of African-Americans, Latinos, employed women, the young and the educated. The Republicans have as many as 10 presidential candidates of varying degrees of plausibility and they are already beginning to argue among themselves. As for the Democrats, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton dominates the field, but some Democrats have considerable reservations on account of her closeness to the financial industry and her support for a militarily interventionist foreign policy. The political insiders follow these matters day by day, but most Americans are quite content to postpone thinking about the election until next year.

In foreign policy, however, the president cannot look ahead. He has to take decisions, frequently under the pressure of events. Now, he has asked Congress to authorize war on the Jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria but has said that he will not send large scale US forces to the Mideast again. Many Republicans and some Democrats advocate full-scale war despite our evident incapacity to achieve anything but chaos. 

The president's negotiations with Iran are contested by Republicans and Democrats close to the Israeli lobby. The Republicans invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress in opposition to the president's negotiations with Iran. That has angered Obama and the group in the foreign policy and military apparatus skeptical of too close an alliance with Israel. Whatever the results of the impending Israeli election, we may anticipate a steady if slow loosening of the alliance.

The president and his advisors have no long-term strategy for dealing with the turmoil in the Mideast and the Muslim nations generally. The American public in its majority is frightened of "terror" but reluctant to support another Afghanistan or Iraq war. It is also convincingly ignorant of that part of the world. Obama's visits to India and Saudi Arabia sought support for a very nebulous project. His embarrassment when asked about human rights in Saudi Arabia was evident. The human rights proponents in his government, such as UN Ambassador Samantha Power and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, at the moment have no successes to claim. The president and his tireless Secretary of State John Kerry are fast approaching the point at which they will consider themselves successful if they only hand on an entire series of crises to their successors, and avoid major catastrophes in the meantime.

American commentators often write of "deep states," that is, permanent and often covert sets of interest groups, and officials who control other nations despite formally democratic institutions. Obama has the public behind him in refusing total war in the Mideast and in recognizing Cuba. He is able to pursue negotiations with Iran since the armed forces lack enthusiasm for a war with that country and with Russia over Ukraine. For the rest, policies in Africa and Asia and the Pacific, increases in the military budget, the powers of the surveillance agencies, are not matters of continuous or informed and wide debate. Obama cannot recast our entire foreign policy since he has to bargain with our own "deep state." His next and last State of the Union address, in January of 2016, will show very little change.

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

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