Cut it any way you like: Tuesday’s midterm elections, in which Republicans steamrollered their way to a majority in the Senate and thus secured total control of Congress, were a massive defeat for President Obama, with virtually no redeeming feature. Midterms are always in large part a referendum on the occupant of the White House.
If those of 2010, in which Republicans won back the House of Representatives, were, in the President’s words a “shellacking”, these were close to a personal repudiation by voters.
The campaign, almost entirely negative in tone, was a reflection of the current, dysfunctional state of US politics, and Americans’ loss of faith in the future. They were, obviously, a disaster for Democrats, but bad news as well for a world that, for all its ambivalence about American power, invariably looks to Washington for leadership at moments of international turbulence.
Usually foreign affairs play a minor role at best in US elections. But this time was different. What is happening abroad did not decide the election, but it helped shape the outcome. Americans have been scared by the rise of Isis, appalled by the beheadings of American captives, and alarmed by the chaos in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has raised fears of a pandemic at home. Then there is the continuing tension in Ukraine and the emergence of a nationalist and hostile Russia under Vladimir Putin who – rightly or wrongly – is perceived by many as outmanoeuvring Mr Obama at every turn.
None of these issues has helped the President. He is accused of responding either weakly or incompetently to these separate problems, and for the lack of a coherent overall strategy.
No president would find it easy to chart a steady foreign course in today’s confused America, trapped between the conflicting aspirations of a population weary of foreign involvement yet which still demands that the US call the shots on the global stage. In fact, Mr Obama’s judgements have usually been sound and realistic. But these merits are often lost amid the perception he has a detached and over-professorial approach to global issues.
His predecessor George W Bush has been described as a leader who did not think. This President all too easily comes across as a thinker who does not lead. And just as Mr Bush was punished for the debacle of Iraq by a Democratic recapture of the Senate at the 2006 midterms, Mr Obama paid a similar price on Tuesday.
In domestic terms he is now the lamest of lame ducks, unable to shape the agenda on Capitol Hill. His achievements in reforming healthcare and reining in Wall Street are likely to come under permanent attack; his powers are now effectively reduced to those of the veto. He is in office for two more years, but will be an onlooker as the focus switches to the 2016 White House race. It is vital however that this weakness does not extend to foreign policy.
Today, as in the past, the US is expected to lead on the world stage – and that will depend on both sides setting aside their differences. Partisan politics in America, the Republican Arthur Vandenberg, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared back in 1947, should “stop at the water’s edge.” Events, from the war in Vietnam to the one in Iraq, have made that wishful thinking. But in the depths of the Cold War, Senator Vandenberg worked closely with the Democratic President, Harry Truman. In these troubled times, Mr Obama and the Republican leadership in both chambers of Congress must do the same.Reuse content