Obama’s familiar world of problems

Obama has to replay his hand on the fiscal issue with a Congress controlled by his rivals. He doesn’t need another term, their members do.

The re-election of Barack Obama on November 6 impinges on both domestic US politics, where the vulnerability of the Republican Party is now obvious, and the world, as the US is still the last-resort guarantor of international security, free trade and the idea of liberal democracy as the model for governance.

By a strange coincidence, the 10-yearly transfer of power in China to new leadership commenced a day later.
On September 2, 2011, a worried White House examined the latest economic data, indicating that in the month preceding not one job had been added. Unemployment was stuck at 9.1 per cent, meaning that 14 million were out of jobs. No American President since 1940 had been re-elected with unemployment over 7.2 per cent. The US Congress, captured by the Republicans in 2010, was bent on making Mr Obama a one-term President. They would not allow additional taxes and thus revenue generation, while insisting that the debt limit of $14.7 trillion would not be raised and that the government needed to cut spending i.e. programmes for the less advantaged and old. Two visions on how to run America were colliding.
Externally the visions of the two parties were not that disparate. Mr Obama, after all, had even continued with the defence secretary Robert Gates of President George W. Bush. Mr Obama had taken exception to the war in Iraq, but the war in Afghanistan he had dubbed as a war of choice. This and the killing of Osama bin Laden had robbed the Republican Party of their normally strident criticism of their opponents on issues of national security and foreign policy. The election was thus fought on domestic issues, in particular on the management of the economy.
Mitt Romney’s clandestinely recorded remarks on 47 per cent of the population sponging off the rest, an op-ed he wrote four years earlier opposing the rescue by President Obama of the US automobile industry, espousal of anti-life positions on women’s right to abortion etc to please the extreme right wing of the party and his delay in revealing his tax returns added to popular doubts about his sincerity in addressing the problems of the common American.
Where Mr Obama was ineffective in explaining in simple terms what the economic arithmetic paraded by the Republicans meant, former President Bill Clinton unfurled his verbal magic in nailing the holes in the Republican arguments. Simply the rainbow coalition of women, Hispanics, Afro-Americans and the youth swept away the old logic of a President failing to be re-elected when the economy was sluggish, albeit sputtering back to life.
The lesson was obvious and applied to India as much. The Bharatiya Janata Party when led by Atal Behari Vajpayee could provide a wide enough tent, with a moderate visage, in which the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh was present but invisible or even voiceless. Much as a Ronald Reagan could use his communication skills and personality to make the Republican Party an electoral success, submerging even his own extremist views on some issues into a coalition that appeared just right of centre.
For both the parties the dilemma is today identical. How to absorb the narrative of the extreme right wing of the party in a hue that is marketable to a changing demographics, which is aspirational, younger and diverse?
Externally it is fortuitous that Mr Obama will provide continuity when the Arab Spring, particularly its effect in Syria, nuclear proliferation in Iran and Pakistan, radical Islam and Al Qaeda’s rebirth in Africa, specifically in North Mali and the rise of China, now led by new and untested leadership and finally the endgame in Afghanistan are all dangling precariously. There are many alternative futures possible, as much important to India as to the US. The India-US relations have been well grounded to build an edifice of strong engagement, short of alliance, that is good for Asia and helpful to India’s rise. Perhaps a President Romney would have had similar ideas on what Mr Obama called a defining relationship. He would have, however, had to go through a learning curve that the world can ill afford.
Two countries seem to have misgivings about an Obama second term, Pakistan and Israel. The latter faces elections in January. It was no secret that Mr Romney and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared a close friendship. His opponents in Israel are beginning to hint that he may have — by his defiance of the US — tried to undermine Mr Obama’s re-election.
Israeli public may read this to reject him, which can be a first step in stitching peace in the entire West Asia. Pakistan, too, as also Taliban and their supporters, may now realise that transition in Afghanistan does not mean that they can have their own wishlist implemented. Mr Romney’s win may have raised expectations on that count.
Finally, the new Chinese leadership will realise that Mr Obama has already gone through a cycle of first trying to woo Beijing, making a visit there well before coming to India, to finally pronouncing an “Asian Pivot”, which is a euphemism for hedging China. It is China that will be on the backfoot in dealing with the US as it must decide if it wants to heighten tensions in the seas to its East and South or revert to following the laws of the seas.
Naturally, Mr Obama has to first replay his hand on the fiscal issue with a Congress still controlled by the Republicans. The difference is that he does not need another term, their members do.
Meanwhile, the world awaits the unfolding of his diplomatic game, many crises exacerbated by an America distracted at home.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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