Obama eyes the East

The American people have spoken. Barack Obama remains the President of the United States – and by extension leader of the world – for the next four years.

By Bruce Stokes (World View)

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Published: Mon 19 Nov 2012, 9:31 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:45 PM

The people of Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America had no say in this choice, but they must live with the consequences. The policies pursued by the reelected American president, be it dealing with the economy, Iran, terrorism or trade, promise to have a profound effect on the lives and livelihoods of billions of people in all parts of the globe.

The promises that presidential candidates make on the campaign trail do not necessarily dictate the policies pursued, But presidents tend to attempt to implement their promises. Moreover, American public opinion on a range of issues facing the next president is clear, with priority on the economy, preventing a nuclear Iran and catching up with China. Obama will defy such sentiment at his political peril.

The potential for either collaboration or friction between the new administration and foreign governments is ever-present. Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans attempting to gauge the implications of Obama’s victory understandably wonder if commitments made in the heat of a US presidential election really matter once a candidate becomes president. They do.

“About 75 per cent of the promises made by presidents from Woodrow Wilson through Jimmy Carter were kept,” concluded Michael Krukones in his 1984 book ‘Promises and Performance: Presidential Campaigns as Policy Predictors’. More recently, ‘PolitiFact’, the winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for its efforts to keep US politicians honest, concluded that of the 508 separate promises candidate Obama made during the 2008 presidential campaign, he broke only 88 – despite a polarised Congress intent on blocking Democratic initiatives. Thus when a presidential candidate’s promise is buttressed by the support of the American public, or at least the backing of his party stalwarts, it may be safe to assume that he’ll try to implement that commitment. Some of Obama’s economic commitments will be tested over the next few weeks.

The US economy risks careening over what many call a “fiscal cliff’ in January 2013, when, as the result of the debt deal struck between Congress and the White House in August 2011, dramatic cuts must be made to defence and social-welfare spending and taxes must be raised unless a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan is agreed upon. The nonpartisan US Congressional Budget Office estimates that implementing such spending cuts and tax increases would shrink the American economy by 0.5 per cent in 2013. Such a course would ripple through the global economy already hobbled by near recession in Europe and slowdown in China, India and Japan.

Doing nothing would mean that the US government deficit would remain above $1 trillion for a fifth consecutive year, risking a spike in interest rates that could slow growth anyway. Obama will be intensely involved in negotiations with congressional leaders about the “fiscal cliff” even before his 20 January inauguration. On other economic issues, such as trade, there is greater clarity as to the trajectory of US policy in the wake of the election. Obama is committed to completing the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement with nations surrounding the Pacific basin.

In 2013, he’s expected to launch a free-trade agreement with Europe. And, if his campaign rhetoric is any clue, he’ll continue Washington’s “get tough” policy with China on trade issues. But all US presidents talk tougher on China, and earlier on Japan, than they actually act.

Obama will have mixed public support. Americans assume that free-trade agreements kill jobs and undermine wages, which could make a Trans-Pacific deal particularly hard to sell to Congress. At the same time, an October 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that by 49 per cent to 42 per cent, Americans preferred being tough in dealing with China on economic issues over building a strong relationship. Backing for this more hardnosed approach increased nine percentage points since March 2011.

Obama can be expected to continue the US-led efforts to fight terrorism, which enjoy 75 per cent support among the American public. Drone strikes are supported by 62 per cent of Americans, including 74 per cent of Republicans and 58 per cent of Democrats, and are likely to be one of the principal methods of prosecuting that war. But people in most other nations take a sharply negative view, portending difficulties.

American elections are consequential events, not just for the United States, but for the world. President Obama’s reelection is likely to bring to a head a number of long-smoldering economic and strategic concerns. He has a mandate to govern, but his mandate on specific issues is far from clear, facing opposition both at home and abroad. His biggest challenge may be to bridge the divides among the American people and with America’s allies.

Bruce Stokes is director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center

© Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation

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