Obama Won: What Will Happen Now?

Commentary No. 341, Nov. 15, 2012

Obama won the U.S. elections with a significant margin both in the popular vote and in the Electoral College. The Democrats won every closely contested seat for the Senate except one. This relieved the Democrats, who had been worried, and astonished the Republicans, who had felt certain of victory. Now the whole world wants to know what this means for the immediate future of the United States and the world. The answer is not simple.

Let me start with foreign policy. The U.S. government still wishes to pursue an imperial policy throughout the world. The problem it faces is very simple. Its ability to do this has drastically declined, but the elites (including Obama) don’t wish to acknowledge this. They still speak of the United States as the “indispensable” nation and the “greatest country” ever known. This is a contradiction that they don’t know how to handle. As for the ordinary U.S. citizen, an exit poll that asked what motivated the votes of those polled found that only 4% said foreign policy. Nonetheless, most ordinary citizens still believe the mantra that the United States is the world’s golden example.

We can therefore expect that Obama will continue to do what he has been doing: talking tough, but acting in fact prudently vis-à-vis Iran, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, China, Mexico, and indeed most countries. This of course exasperates most other countries and all sorts of political actors across the world. Whether he can continue to walk this narrow tightrope without falling off is not at all assured, especially since the United States can no longer really control what most other actors will do.

Obama is almost as helpless regarding the economy – the U.S. economy and the world-economy. I doubt that he can seriously reduce U.S. unemployment, and in 2014 and 2016, this will help the Republicans rebound. The crucial issue at the moment is the so-called (and misnamed) fiscal cliff. The real issue here is who is going to bear the largest burden of U.S. economic decline.

On these issues, Obama was elected on populist promises but actually is pursuing a right-of-center position. He is offering the Republicans a deal: higher taxes for the wealthy along with significant cuts in health and maybe pension expenditures for the majority of the population. This is the U.S. version of austerity.

This is a bad deal for the vast majority of Americans, but Obama will pursue it vigorously. The deal may nonetheless fall through, if the Republican right wing stupidly refuses to go along with it. The business elites of the United States are putting pressure on the Republicans to accept the deal. The trade-unions and the liberals (inside and outside the Democratic Party) are pushing against the deal. But thus far, the liberal anti-deal push has been far weaker than the business elite pro-deal push. This is essentially a class struggle of a very traditional kind, and the 99% do not always win these struggles.

On so-called social issues, which were a true divider between the Republicans and Democrats in this election, the U.S. voting population defeated the troglodytes hands down. Gay marriage won on the ballot in four states, and the shift in public opinion indicates this trend will continue.

Even more important was the absolutely lopsided vote for Obama and the Democrats by African-Americans and by Latinos. It seems that the ferocious attempts by Republican governors to impede voting by these groups stirred a backlash, in which even more of them voted than previously. For Latinos, the key issue was immigration reform. And major figures in the Republican party (including Jeb Bush, himself a potential future presidential candidate) are now saying that, unless the Republicans cooperate with immigration reform, they can never hope to win national (and many state) elections. My guess is that some legislation will in fact now pass Congress.

Obama has been a big disappointment to that large group of his supporters who are motivated by environmental and ecological concerns. He has talked a good line but has done rather little. One reason is that another group of supporters – the trade-unions – have been arguing in the other direction because of the risk to jobs. Obama has waffled, and he will probably continue to waffle. This is marginally better than Romney, who would have shut down the agencies that still try to protect the environment.

Obama’s record has been bad on civil liberties issues, indeed in some ways worse than that of George W. Bush. He has moved aggressively against whistle-blowers. He has not shut down Guantanamo and he has actively supported the Patriot Act. He has used drones to assassinate presumed enemies of the United States. In these actions, he has been supported by most members of Congress and the courts in general. There is no reason to assume he will change his behavior in this regard.

One major reason evoked every four years to support the Democratic candidate for president has been appointments to the Supreme Court. It is true that, had Romney been elected and one non-conservative judge died or resigned, the Court would have been moved far to the right for a generation.

What will happen now that Obama has been re-elected? There are four justices over 70 years of age. There is no mandatory retirement age. None of the four seems about to resign, not even Justice Ginsburg who has been ill. The opportunity for Obama to make a difference depends however on whether Justice Kennedy will resign or die and whether Justice Scalia will die (he certainly won’t resign). This is entirely unpredictable. But if this happened, Obama’s re-election will indeed have made a difference.

Finally, what is the future of U.S. politics? This is the most uncertain element of all. The Republican Party seems to be starting an internal civil war between the tea party conservatives and everyone else. Everyone else notes that the Republicans blew their chances to win the Senate because of losses in the primaries of “sure winners” to quite extremist tea party-endorsed candidates. Only 11% of votes for Romney came from non-Whites. And percentages of Latino voters are rising even in presently sure Republican states like Texas and Georgia. But if the Republicans do begin to talk a more centrist line, will they lose a significant part of their base, who will abstain from voting?

The Democrats have a similar problem, although not as serious. Their votes came from a “rainbow coalition” – women (especially single mothers and working women), African-Americans, Latinos, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, trade-unionists, young people, poor people, and well-educated people. Their demands are at odds with the preferences of those who control the party, including Obama. This time, the base stayed loyal. Even those who supported third-party candidates seemed to do this only in states where the Democrats couldn’t lose. There was no swing state in which third-party candidates seemed to tilt the election.

Will the liberals within the party move now to third parties? It seems unlikely at the moment, but it is not impossible. It depends in part on how dramatic a fall the United States takes in the coming four years. It depends on how far Obama will cede on “populist” issues.

The bottom line is that Obama’s re-election has made some difference, but far less than he claimed or that the Republicans feared. Once again, I remind everyone that we are living in a chaotic world in transition, in which wild shifts of all kinds are part of our current reality, including in political allegiances.