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Obama reloaded

16 November 2012

The focus of the presidential campaign – economic growth and job creation – clearly indicated what the priorities in Washington currently are. A recent Gallup poll suggests that the top challenges facing President Obama are domestic: the economy, unemployment, the federal budget deficit, dissatisfaction with government and healthcare. Consequently, President Obama will spend his second term getting the country fully back on track. This will require closer bipartisan cooperation, and both branches of government will need to draw lessons from Obama’s first term.

Foreign and security policy priorities

Unless events in other parts of the world decide otherwise, it is almost certain that a strong team of economists and financial experts will run the show in Washington. If there is anything that is agreed upon across the political divide, it is the negative impact of a fragile US economy on the country’s international credibility and posture. Robert Kagan and R. Nicholas Burns, for example, have both argued that addressing the fiscal crisis and finding both near- and long-term solutions, is in the interest of the US national security.

In his article for the International Herald Tribune (9 November 2012), Nick Burns argues that President Obama has an opportunity to become a ‘transformational president in foreign policy’, but much will depend on events beyond his direct influence and control. Nevertheless, several commentators have put forward their own lists of strategic priorities:

  • Usual suspects: the Middle East, Iran, global terrorism
  • First-term leftovers: Afghanistan, the strategic ‘pivot’ to Asia, the ‘reset’ of relations with Moscow, democratic transitions in the Arab World, Syria, and Guantanamo.

In Afghanistan, the president will need to decide fairly soon how to contain the negative consequences of the US withdrawal in the absence of capable Afghan security forces - and whether or not to engage with the Taliban. On Iran, many analysts argue that, despite the unprecedented level of international cooperation, any ambitious deal is out of reach. Instead, we should prepare for an ‘ugly deal’ that stops Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. In the Middle East, challenges include engaging with new leaders on domestic transitions as well as regional stability, and reassessing America’s ability to shape events in the area, including the two-state solution. Syria may also require a fresh approach, and a more effective support for the opposition may develop. Finally, the president will need to decide how to advance the US ‘rebalancing’ towards Asia in more practical terms, and how to build constructive relations with the new leaders in Beijing after a presidential campaign in which China was one of the most controversial issues.

For the moment, the only indication on possible responses comes from Obama’s first term when American leadership was based - in Charles Kupchan’s words - on ‘US internationalism that provides leadership through teamwork and consensus building, relying on coercion only as a last resort’. It remains to be seen whether the same style will prevail in the second term. President Obama seems to have already drawn some lessons with regard to the deployment of the military. During the campaign, Obama repeated on many occasions that he intends to use some of the money saved by winding down two wars to rebuild America. In July, David Brooks praised Obama’s ability to combine a ‘power-politics mind-set’ with a ‘warm appreciation of democracy and human rights’, but highlighted also the contrast between his handling of the situations in Libya and Syria. A more recent analysis by George Friedman suggests that the president has lost his ‘appetite for foreign adventures’, including war. At the same time he notes that a more cautious American foreign policy may cause ‘a great deal of unhappiness with the second Obama administration’ overseas.

Beyond the presidential race

In Congress, the status quo will continue, with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate. This election has also highlighted the new ‘existential’ dilemma the GOP is now confronted with. A serious evaluation of its position and tactics is required if it does not want to become ‘a permanent minority on the national stage’ – rather than the permanent majority claimed years ago by Republican top strategist Karl Rove. The way the party will go and whether it comes to terms with the realities of an increasingly diverse American society will probably also shape (and be shaped by) the way it will behave in Congress on the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ and other pending issues such as immigration reform, energy or environmental policy.

Some of these issues may also end up involving the judiciary, as has already happened in the past. This in turn pinpoints how important it will be for the new administration to fill up the numerous vacant seats across the Federal Judiciary. That said, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) suggests that bipartisan cooperation on such issues as support for Israel, sanctions on Iran or trade agreements (including in the Asia Pacific and with the EU) is most likely to continue.

Between EU and US


Barack Obama’s recent speeches all show that his main objective is to leave a lasting domestic (rather than foreign) legacy. During the first part of his second term in particular, however, he may be more reluctant to launch new foreign policy initiatives (Philip Stephens in the Financial Times speaks of Obama’s America as a ‘selective superpower’). The good news is that many of the challenges facing the president (including those related to the US economy) will require closer cooperation with the EU; cooperation that is ultimately also in Europe’s own strategic interest.

Such cooperation will occur both by design and by default. By design, because negotiations on the new free trade agreement (FTA) are set to start next year and will test our determination to deepen our economic ties. And by default, because a less interventionist US and its Asian ‘pivot’ - coupled with budgetary cuts on defence on both sides of the Atlantic – may force Europeans to improve their own capabilities and take on more responsibilities, especially in their immediate neighbourhood. Cooperation on energy policy will be a combination of both in light of the renewed emphasis of Obama 2.0 on the environment and ‘green’ technologies coupled with the growing impact of shale gas and 'tight' oil - let alone liquefied natural gas (LNG) - on global energy markets. Yet again, more reasons for European to regroup and reload their own approach.

In the weeks and months to come, however, European sights will be set also on the composition of the second Obama administration – starting with Hillary Clinton’s successor at the State Department. After four years of unprecedented, fruitful and smooth cooperation on foreign and security policy between the US and the EU as a whole, she will be missed as might be Under-Secretary Phil Gordon’s profound knowledge of European politics and mindsets. This vacuum is all the more evident as several members of the Transatlantic Legislators’ Dialogue (TLD) remain without a mandate. Expertise on Europe may thus be in shorter supply in both branches of government – hopefully not for long.