Reading the US Mid-Terms: Has Obama got an opportunity to shine in foreign affairs?

obama august 4 large

By Dr Trevor McCrisken and Dee Dutta

US mid-term congressional elections often don’t have much impact on foreign policy, but Tuesday’s results, that saw the Republican Party win control of the Senate and make further gains in the House of Representatives, could prove to be a bonus for President Obama’s foreign policy, if he plays it right.  The Democrats had a drubbing at the hands of an electorate dissatisfied with falling living standards, no real income growth, and what Obama’s opponents have painted as a vacillating president has led to a feeling of negativity regarding the president in particular, and Washington politics in general.

History urges caution.  Second term presidents can always expect their party to lose congressional seats in the midterms, and Obama’s approval rating is higher than George W. Bush’s at the same point in his presidency. President Obama has had his fair share of tough decisions over the last six years, having come into office on the back of a financial crisis, dealing with two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a world sick and tired of what were widely perceived as American imperial pretensions.

The world had become used to post-Cold War US presidents working to an ideological playbook but Obama put together a first term foreign policy without a coherent ideological vision. Obama’s main challenge was to reach out to those parts of the world that were suspicious and fearful of what the US might do next. Obama needed an agenda for moderate Islam versus militant Islam. The task of building legitimacy required reaching out to parts of the world where the US image was at its lowest ebb. Whilst speeches in Cairo and Oslo were important in the “new beginning” process with the Muslim world, what they did not do was lay out a clear foreign policy approach. Obama’s approach was predicated on undoing the wrongs of the past. Combined with a perceived overabundance of caution when it came to taking decisive action, the Obama administration came to be seen as weak and vacillating by foes.  In term two, Putin’s territorial expansion in Crimea and the growth of ISIS appear symptomatic of an America regarded as largely happy to be on the side- lines rather than leading from the front.

This week’s Republican victory in the Senate is being heralded as an end to Obama’s ability to be an effective president in his final two years in office. An alternative reading is that the domestic victories for his political opponents will enable this “lame duck” president to actually strive for a modicum of success in foreign policy. The Republicans will initially aim to unpick Obama’s domestic agenda, giving the Obama administration greater freedom to operate in foreign affairs since Congress has less of a power base to utilise in that area. Presidents into the second half of their final term always look to build a legacy in foreign policy, especially when they are being besieged at home. The President will find both sides of Congress giving him a freer hand to take more decisive action in the Middle East and also on Russia, should Putin get up to more mischief. There may be setbacks and delays of course. Republicans will be less willing to allow Obama to finalise the Iran nuclear deal, not least because the Israel Lobby is likely to ally itself with the Republican congressional leadership to put greater pressure on the Obama administration. That Obama will complete a deal remains likely, as the Iranians are keen to resolve the issue and prevent further sanctions before the uncertainty of what direction the next US administration might take.  From Obama’s perspective Iran is key to finding a security solution for Syria and to marginalise Russia.

While President Obama reflects on the results this week, Democratic presidential hopefuls will be looking on nervously as the Republican surge translates into confidence in their next objective of retaking the White House. Already Republicans like Rand Paul have started taking pot shots at Hillary Clinton in the anticipation that she will be the Democratic challenger. The likely foreign policy postures that may emerge during the presidential primaries will demonstrate the gamut of Republican opinion from the isolationism of Rand Paul through to the Tea Party conservatism of Ted Cruz. Clinton Democrats will not be significantly different from the Obama Democrats, but Hillary will need to define her difference from Obama if the White House is to see another Democrat in 2017.

If a week is a long time in politics, then two years is an eternity. Perhaps no great surprises should be expected, but with the domestic agenda effectively handed to the Republicans, Obama’s attention should shift outwards. He has the historic opportunity now to carve out a coherent foreign policy that could be his lasting legacy – to combat the advance of ISIS, to create a strong agenda on Russia through NATO, to re-engage with the Middle East peace process, and last but not least sign a nuclear deal with Iran. History may yet judge Obama more kindly than the electorate.


Trevor McCrisken is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. His research focuses on US foreign policy, in particular the ideational bases of policy making, the threat and use of US military force, and most recently the counter-terrorism policies of the Obama administration on which he has published in the journals International Affairs and Survival.

Dee thumbnailDee Dutta, Joint Editor of Politics Reconsidered, is a Phd student working on US foreign policy, security, , legitimacy and leadership. As an ESRC scholarship student he comes to Warwick after a 25 year career in international marketing with leading blue chip companies in technology.  

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