By Reza Sanati
While it is thoroughly in the realm of the possible that in facing a mundane Republican establishment Barak Obama would retain the US presidency, equally probable is a scenario that his administration would face a sluggish, uneventful demise. Considering the state of a downgraded economy, inconclusive foreign wars, a failing internal governance model, rife unemployment at home, and a continuously diminished image abroad particularly within the Islamic world, the latter fate no longer seems fantastical, as it once might have been. The recent spate of apocalyptic commentary concerning the future of the Obama administration, from varying political inclinations – left, right, and center – only confirms the ominous state of the Obama administration.
Yet, regardless of the perceptions surrounding the Obama administration, chiefly amongst the US right, a defeat in 2012 would not be attributable to the introduction of radical domestic policies nor a fundamental restructuring of US foreign policy, for there was none of that to be had. Poignantly, three years into the Obama presidency, it is now evident that the administration is essentially a sophisticated, revamped version of the Clinton administration, with various Bushite accouterments. Though advertised as a presidency that would fundamentally reorder major facets of US domestic and foreign policy, the administration adopted, wholesale, the internal decision-making architecture of the Clinton administration. And as the Obama presidency mainly carried over the unfinished business of Clintonian domestic policy (i.e. light, transitory revisions to US healthcare), they continued, with a multilateral veneer, much of Bush interventionism. Moreover, the administration not only expanded the emergency prescriptions that Bush levied upon the hemorrhaging US economy in late 2008 (i.e. massive assistance to big US financial institutions), but also carried on the same pattern of post Cold-War US foreign policy. In the Middle East, where the brunt of US power, focus, and strategy is invested, Obama became just another face in the long list of the custodians that protect the nexus of US client regimes (as best as the administration could in the wake of the Arab spring), while backing the Western multilateral intervention model in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, along with his inheritances in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ironically, if a Republican takes the helm of power in succession to Obama, that administration will most likely carry out the same policies that are witnessed today. The current domestic and foreign conditions that influence US behavior will most likely drag the Obama successor towards similar policies. So one might wonder, why would the Obama administration necessarily be vulnerable, if all that was done in its first term was a continuum of Clinton/Bush policies, and in the event of his departure, his successor would largely adopt current internal and external US behavior?
The consequential reason lies in the gradual disintegration of Obama’s electoral base. Since his inauguration and particularly since it became evident that the Obama call for “change” was simply not going to alter the established US dictum in foreign policy and its domestic correlates, there has been a steady chipping away of the diverse coalition that brought him to power. The first segment to shed itself from the administration was the independent voter block, of which now a strong majority firmly opposes the administration’s custodianship. The second became the Latino vote, while the third is the current erosion of the African-US vote. If by 2012, Obama has not regained the trust and confidence of these disparate constituencies, the aggregate loss of these large voting blocks will doom his chances for a second term.
One may be tempted to fault the structural constraints in the US presidency and how they fundamentally complicated the administration’s attempts to implement changes. The shackles of domestic politics, the grinding bureaucracy, and the weight of the traditions and expectations of a neo-imperial power would simply suffocate the sincere desires of one or few individuals to carry out change, even if they occupy the helm of power. An equally likely narrative would attribute causality to the personal attributes of the individual. One description is that candidate Obama flirted with the image of a semi-radical change agent to generate excitement and support for his campaign, yet once having attained office, he, like his predecessors, continued with established US foreign and domestic policy dictates – either because he believed in them or because his “core” base (affluent, strong, domestic forces) pushed him to. Another picture is even more perfunctory: Obama is simply a weak, consensus driven president in a highly polarized political climate – a small tuna in an ocean of sharks.
Whatever the case, a central question remains, one which lies at the heart of the political system of a lonely superpower facing a changing world that it increasingly lacks influence over: given the aforementioned considerations, could have Obama brought change, assuming of course, that he actually does personify his candidacy? In other words, regardless of the wall of domestic and bureaucratic resistance internally, pressures for the continuation of the post-Cold War status quo emanating from external forces (i.e. allies, etc.) or Obama’s penchant for acquiescence to the opposition, was it possible for this candidate turned President to enact fundamental change?
The answer lies somewhere within a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the concept of the US executive, the domestic and external contexts that they are posited in, and, more consequently, the era within the evolutionary power-make up of the US superpower project. While the aforementioned two are usually constant (i.e. continuity of domestic politics, bureaucratic factionalism, and pressures from foreign policy considerations) it is the latter, namely the era in which a particular US head of state is situated in, that can provide the answer to the question, “Could have Obama enacted change”? Simply put, the period in which this particular President came into power allowed him far more latitude to affect change and possibly transformation in key theatres than those before him.
The difference between the Obama administrations and most of its predecessors was the context in which he came into office was one of tremendous uncertainty and chaos for the US, a time of massive economic and strategic crisis. Moreover, equally important but also distinctive was the large mandate for fundamental change that he carried by the majority of the US body politic (remember, ‘Change’ was the slogan). These two traits of the Obama candidacy not only provided the administration with ample justification for the impugned significant alterations to US domestic and foreign policy, but also a shield to fend of both domestic oppositional criticism and reservations by foreign players who have been vested in a status quo that was clearly diminishing US power. The electorate who eventually stood behind Obama knew this and thus supported his candidacy. Yet, with the passage of time, deterioration of this coalition happened when the varying issues that touch each constituency was either ignored or even made worse (i.e. interventionist foreign policy for some independents, jobs and lack of governmental aid for minorities, and other broader issues that affect the population at large).
Whatever the case, for Barak Obama, failure to exploit the opportunities and the mandate has not only generated far more disappointment and anger at his administration, but has essentially led to the de-politicization of large swaths of his former base. Under these circumstances, while the President might lose the upcoming elections to the opposing side, it would be far more attributable to abandonment as opposed to defeat.