Obama After His (Predicted) Setback

Tomorrow’s the Big Day! It’s mid-term election-day in the US, the occasion (as usually is the case) for the party-in-power in the White House to lose its dominance in Congress to some degree, in this case probably to the extent of seeing a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and possibly even in the Senate as well.

All that Congress stuff is not so often the focus of foreign coverage of American politics, however. Generally, it’s the President foreigners are interested in – the American executive in charge of the country’s relations with other governments, after all – and especially this one who broke once and for all the 200-year-plus color barrier to the office.

So we have, for example, a piece from France’s left-wing LibĂ©ration (Midterm: Obama launches the final assault). There is a disappointed tone here even as journalist Fabrice Rousselot goes into detail about how Barack Obama (together with Michelle) has stepped up his campaigning in the last weeks before the election, using his electoral support organization Organizing for America to go after young voters especially aggressively and get them to the polls tomorrow. After all, Rousselot also notes how, this time, the President’s campaign is not about “Yes we can”; this time it’s more like “It’s hard, and we have to persevere.” That’s not quite so inspiring as a slogan, and so he doubts Obama will be able to do much to ward off a serious electoral defeat for his party.

Then again, that might be a good thing. Such, at least, is the speculation of Chritoph von Marschall writing in the (also left-wing) Berlin paper Der Tagesspiegel (Liberating defeat for Obama). The President’s lack of progress on the foreign affairs front, the author admits, is even more noticeable than his domestic performance (despite the Nobel Prize): Iran, the MidEast, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo still operating. Is he fated to do even worse in the second half of his term after these elections?

Actually, probably the opposite. Here Von Marschall either draws on his own rather sophisticated study of American presidential affairs or else has access to good academic advisors, as he brings forward the insight that, after all, presidents have much more freedom of action in foreign affairs, and so it has repeatedly been the case that they have devoted themselves to these whenever they have felt stifled on the home front. After all, every president must build his own “legacy” for the history books one way or the other; the presidency is not just a matter of warming some historic seat for four or eight years.

Furthering this line of argument, Van Marschall also points out how there is also greater scope to ignore the demands of his own party in the area of foreign affairs, because of that greater freedom there to do what he sees fit. Supposedly his positions on Afghanistan and Iraq in particular are even closer to what Republicans prefer. Then again, this does not guarantee any sort of cosier cooperation between the Executive and Legislative branches coming in with the new Congress; keep in mind the almost pathological determination by Republicans to oppose anything Obama might want to do, seemingly even if at some fundamental level they agree with it. And Obama will still need a 2/3 vote of the Senate to ratify treaties, including the update to the START nuclear weapons treaty he recently signed with Russia. It’s easy to imagine that that, too (and, with it, American-Russian relations generally), could fall victim to the new congressional intransigence likely to be elected tomorrow and installed at the beginning of next January.

UPDATE: Renowned MidEast expert Prof. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan weighs in with this closer examination (in English) of how a Republican-dominated Congress (even if it’s just the House of Representatives) could still hamper the President’s conduct of foreign policy, e.g. by calling hearings on the planned withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan (and even from Iraq) as a means to pressure him to slow them down.

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