x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A victorious Obama still stuck in the same partisan paralysis

Barack Obama's re-election reaffirms the status quo, both domestically and in foreign policy. But Tuesday¿s election also reaffirmed the deadlock in Washington.

It would be an understatement to say that President Barack Obama's decisive re-election victory on Tuesday left conservative Republicans gobsmacked. "It's a perplexing time for many of us right now," former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin told Fox News. Many senior Republicans, however, have become increasingly aware that their party no longer represents the majority of Americans - the crowd gathered for Mitt Romney's concession speech was almost entirely white; Mr Obama delivered his victory speech to a crowd representative of America's full diversity.

That reflects the existential demographic challenge facing the GOP: "We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term," senior Republican senator Lindsey Graham had warned in August.

The Obama campaign triumphed by uniting the traditional liberal and African-American base with a broad sweep of centrist women voters alienated by the Republicans' conservative gender politics; Latino voters who see Mr Obama as the better bet for immigration reform; and the unionised white working class whose jobs were saved by Mr Obama's auto-industry bailout.

Mr Obama's re-election reaffirms the status quo, both domestically and in foreign policy. Existing policies on Syria, Iran, Israel and the Palestinians, China, and Russia won't change quickly. But Tuesday's election also reaffirmed the deadlock in Washington. Mr Obama regained the White House and Democrats appear to have held the Senate, but Republicans have strengthened their hold on the House of Representatives. It was exactly that balance that created the gridlock in Washington that has precluded any governing consensus, leaving the US increasingly adrift in the face of mounting social and economic crises.

And it was Bob Zoellick, Mr Romney's realist foreign policy adviser, who warned in a recent speech that "because the United States has not faced up to its economic problems at home, its voice on international economics does not carry, its power has waned, and its strategic designs drift with the currents of the day's news. Without healthy economic growth, the United States will be unable to lead."

Indeed, the Obama administration's exhortations to Europe to do more to tackle its debt crisis fell on deaf ears, while adversaries in the Middle East no longer fear US ground invasions and Beijing isn't unduly worried by a strategic "pivot to Asia" that so far comprises 2,400 US marines stationed in Australia.

Mr Obama would almost certainly concur with Mr Zoellick's assessment, given his insistence that "a decade of war is at an end" and that the resources devoted to Iraq and Afghanistan should now be diverted to rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure. But the fact that voters on Tuesday failed to break the deadlock in Washington is a grim portent for the prospect of tackling the profound economic malaise that accelerates the relative decline of US influence on the global stage.

Mr Obama is hopeful that his re-election will negate Republican rejectionism, allowing for some pragmatic cooperation to fix the country's problems. He expressed the hope, in an interview two weeks ago, that he could achieve a "grand bargain" with House Republicans to avert the drastic "fiscal cliff" spending cuts that come into effect by the end of 2012 if no new budget deal is concluded.

But Mr Obama had also been confident of securing bipartisan cooperation after winning in 2008, and since then, a lot of the moderate voices in the Republican party have been ejected from office. While analysts see a Republican Party damaged, potentially fatally, by the extreme right-wing positions of its Tea Party base, conservative true believers are having none of it. The apocalyptic anti-Obama narrative the party has developed within its own echo chamber doesn't exactly lend itself to a pivot towards compromise, and the party ideologues on Fox News insisted that Mr Romney had lost because he was too moderate, and that "Obama won but he has no mandate".

Just as those same conservative firebrands rallied the shell-shocked Republicans after Mr Obama's 2008 victory, giving birth to the Tea Party, the mantra that Mr Obama "has no mandate" could serve as a rallying cry for renewed Republican rejectionism. We'll have a good sense in the coming weeks how the Republicans on Capitol Hill plan to proceed, because the "fiscal cliff" deadline is December 31.

The administration will probably stick to its current policy in Syria of seeking to fashion a single opposition leadership capable of offering an alternative to the Assad regime, but won't necessarily rush to arm it. On Iran, it's already been made clear that direct talks over the nuclear impasse would proceed once Mr Obama was re-elected. He may now be able to demonstrate greater flexibility in seeking a diplomatic solution to the standoff - a post-election flexibility of the sort he promised Russia's then-president Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year in a comment caught on an open microphone. (Improving the atmosphere with Russia and Iran, if that's possible, could also open new possibilities on resolving the Syria crisis.)

The other immediate foreign policy challenge Mr Obama will face is the planned Palestinian bid to seek UN General Assembly recognition later this month, although it may be wishful thinking to imagine that the administration will change its stance on Israeli-Palestinian matters. If Mr Obama were to change course, it would take some time, and for now the likelihood is that President Mahmoud Abbas will be threatened and cajoled to withdraw his bid, although perhaps in a manner that turns up the domestic political heat on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who may be challenged in Israel's forthcoming election by a more centrist bloc.

US foreign policy might not have changed fundamentally had Mr Romney won the election, even if the rhetoric might have been more hardline. Mr Obama, mindful of the objective factors limiting America's influence, will likely proceed on the same cautious and responsive line as he has over the past four years - except, perhaps, with the greater flexibility available to a president who has fought his last election. That's where things could start to get interesting.


Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst

On Twitter: @TonyKaron