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#4733, 10 November 2014

Eagle Eye

Has President Obama Turned Lame Duck?
Chintamani Mahapatra
Professor, School of International Studies, JNU

The US’ mid-term Congressional election result was, in the perception of the Republican Party – that came to control the US Congress for the first time in last eight years – a referendum on incumbent President Barack Obama’s presidency. 
If the American voters’ verdict was overwhelmingly against the Democratic Party, some analysts argue, Obama is a lame duck president. Given how Obama could not effectively promote his political agenda when the Democratic Party held majority in the powerful Upper House of the Congress, how can he expect to do so now, when both Houses of the US Congress have come under Republican majority?

It is understandable that Obama will have to cope with tremendous challenges to his domestic political agenda in the next two years of his presidency. The gridlock in Washington, the temporary government shutdown and the sequestration that affected even the Pentagon occurred when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives stonewalled Obama’s political agenda. If history repeats again, Obama will certainly be called a lame duck president.

But history is very unlikely to repeat itself in Washington’s beltway. First of all, encouraged by the recent electoral victory, the Republican Party will try to project itself as a responsible political party that cares for its constituents and the country’s political stability and economic growth. Its image has taken quite a beating due to its behavior in the recent past and the Party, keeping its eyes on 2016 presidential election, cannot afford to retain a negative image among the voters.

Second, there are some issues, such as corporate tax reforms, where Obama and the Republican Party bosses appear to be on the same page. In fact, the Democratic Party, failed to capitalise on Obama’s oratory skills and back his policies during the election campaign and thus had to face consequences. Obama’s desire to leave a noteworthy legacy will induce him to make compromises even if his own party leaders take contrary views on certain legislations.

Third, all said and done, the Republican Party has not got a veto-proof majority in the Congress or a filibuster-proof majority in the US Senate. President Obama will retain his right to veto legislations he opposes and some of his party men can be persuaded to filibuster a Republican legislative measure, if it is perceived to be against the principal party line.

All these do not signify that there is going to be trouble free Obama administration until 2016. Key issues related to energy, environment, immigration, healthcare and public debt will encounter sharp political debates and divisions, and may even create an image of a drastically divided nation over the coming months. But the Republican leadership will be mindful of the 2016 election and Obama will strive to put in place a respectable legacy and hence political processes in the country’s capital may actually witness more restrained dynamics and controlled temper than in the recent past.

Mid-term elections in the US are generally local affairs and do not draw much attention abroad. But the 2014 election is conspicuously different. The world watched it with intense curiosity in view of the ongoing disorder in the world. Russia and China have been flexing muscles in their respective regions and the Obama administration’s response is regarded by the US allies as either weak or lackluster. The Syrian civil war, the spread of the Islamic State’s (IS) influence in West Asia, and the difficulties of finding a workable solution to Iran’s nuclear questions demand a kind of engagement and leadership that the Obama administration has not been able to provide.

The international community does not want to witness the unfolding of a cold war-type equation between the US and Russia and/or between Washington and Beijing. International concerns over the inability of the US-led air strikes to contain the IS are also palpable.

Will Obama act like a lame duck president on foreign affairs? Frankly, under the US constitutional provisions of separation of powers and checks and balances, the president enjoys enormous privilege and leeway to conduct the country’s foreign relations and safeguard national security. The Congress has the power over the purse and it can create hurdles for the White House in matters of implementation. 
But significantly, the Republican Party desires a more robust use of force in the conduct of foreign policy and has criticised Obama for lack of leadership, growing anti-Americanism in the world and less than weighty means to confront Russia on the Ukraine issue and the IS and Syria in West Asia.

One has to watch how far the Republican Congress can persuade, encourage, back and induce the Obama White House to restore the US’ primacy in global affairs. In other words, the Republican Congress will desire President Obama to be more proactive and not a lame duck in conducting world affairs and addressing national security threats.

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