The things Obama can do after GOP midterm landslide

Wednesday, 5. November 2014     0 comment(s)
Charly Salonius-Pasternak
Senior Research Fellow - The Global Security research programme

Midterm elections in the US have ushered in the expected period of Republican control of Congress, in a rather unexpected near-landslide manner. However, what the impact on actual policy will be is not clear. I’ve shared some initial observations on TV, but expand on them below. There are a number of topics and outcomes which demand to be analyzed in the future but the top of mind for me are the following:

Which governing philosophy will dominate?

Will the GOP choose to look for some issues on which it can look like it is seeking compromise and cooperation, such as immigration, in order to shed its ‘party of no’ lable? Or, will its lesson from the midterms be that the approach of denying Obama any accomplishments and gridlocking decision-making paid off, and continue the tactics for two more years? The latter approach is likely to get Obama to expand his use of Executive Orders, which he has used to a far lesser degree than his immediate predecessors. Obama expressed serious doubts about the expansion of presidential/executive powers when he stepped into the office in 2009, but with his eyes on the history books, he is certain to seek a few more notable accomplishments before the end of his term, even if they result in immediate criticisms about the means used to accomplish them – such as Executive Orders.

Four potential accomplishments hint at the complex domestic dynamics that will impact all domestic and foreign policy discussions in Washington, and have relevance to foreign audiences, while also suggesting how the different governance models impact policy choices:

Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP)

Republican party control of Congress may improve the odds that the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiators reach a deal. I say may because even though the GOP theoretically supports ‘free markets and trade’ and may even see that the positives out weight the negatives in the case of TTIP, the party is still likely to want to deny President Obama a clear historical achievement. The party leadership may also argue that it is important to block Obama to cover internecine fighting within the party. A potential approach is to enable the hard work to be done by the end of Obama’s term, hoping that their candidate having been elected president could then take the credit, and then simply let Obama take credit for TTIP if the Democrat candidate wins in 2016.

Ultimately, however, the likelihood that President Obama is given fast-track negotiation authority – meaning a straight yes/no vote on TTIP – is higher today than it was yesterday, making it more likely that TTIP will get done.

Strengthening Allies

Strengthening alliance networks was introduced by Obama as one of his top five foreign policy priorities in his "A New Strategy for a New World” speech in the summer of 2008. Here the near-term focus would be on events in Europe and Middle-East, but ongoing events in Asia could quickly shift the focus there. In Europe the confrontation between Russia and ‘the west’ – including NATO and EU – shows little sign of abating, rather multiple analyses all point to tensions continuing to increase. This suggests Obama may need to ask Congress for more money to support Allies.

Traditionally the Republican Party is considered to be friendlier to the use of US military power and to funding its use, which would lead to a conclusion that Obama may more easily be able to get additional funding from Congress. However, the relatively strong positions of both Tea Party and Libertarian wings in the GOP, both of whom would like to see spending cut and a more limited US role in the world, suggests additional funding may not be as easily forthcoming. The picture is muddled further by the fact that both of these wings have recently taken steps to moderate their positions on defense spending and foreign engagement; whether or not this is a matter of political convenience or necessity, or simply cooptation is still up for discussion.

Climate change

The Conventional Wisdom (CW) is that the 2014 midterm results have buried any chance of the US playing a constructive role in global climate change mitigation negotiations. That is true but misses the point. The United States was not going to ratify any result of ongoing global multilateral climate negotiations, but what it does itself can and already has had important impacts.

The election results have no impact on the court-established power of President Obama through the Clean Air Act to limit (for example) greenhouse gas emissions, through the use of Executive Orders. The impacts on emissions have already been notable. There is little reason to believe President Obama would shy away from intensifying the use of Executive Orders in this manner, especially if the overall governing philosophy chosen by the GOP is not one of cooperation and compromise.

In addition to the above domestic impacts, the most significant impact that the United States can have on global climate change mitigation effects is through its innovation and sheer market size: the creation of new viable energy sources, identifying and bringing to market technologies that increase efficiency and demanding higher standards of products sold in the US. The introduction and spread of unleaded gasoline, in response to state-level emissions standards in California is a historical example of this mechanism at work.

So, the midterm results have not negatively impacted any realistic role the US could play in global climate change mitigation efforts, but depending on how domestic political dynamics develop, may even have increased the likelihood of Obama pushing for considerably more dramatic measures.

Iran nuclear deal

If the multiparty talks over the Iranian nuclear program reach a deal, the makeup of the US Congress is likely to make less of an impact than is generally appreciated. No modern US Senate would have made passage of a deal easy, but due to a potential approach by President Obama, the US Senate may in the short-term be a less relevant actor independent of its balance of power.

The approach would have President Obama temporarily suspend sanctions at specified milestones, not seek to have them permanently removed. Though this approach would be met by widespread criticism it may also be welcomed by the leadership in both parties, as it would avoid public intra-party disagreements or fractious votes on the issue. Obama’s willingness to consider this approach may provide an opportunity that most parties in the negotiations are interested in exploring.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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