Quite obviously, it is too early to assess the 44th US president’s place in history: his second term only began on January 20, 2013. Yet it is common knowledge that Barack Obama is not only the first Afro-American president of the US. He is also the first president who was sworn in four times. In 2009 he had to repeat this procedure because the Chief Justice of the United States, who traditionally administers the oath, confused the word order in the text. This year the solemn oath-taking on Capitol Hill was preceded by a private ceremony in the White House on Sunday, January 20, as the US Constitution demands. The president must have been relieved to see that no new mistake had broken the strict protocol of the Monday festivities and ruined the good mood of their participants.
On the whole, even the most avid followers of Obama must have lacked the feeling of rapture, almost euphoria, which marked and singled out the previous inauguration celebrations, making them special. The American journalist Ruth Marcus wittingly noted: “The thrill of 2008 has yielded to the frustration of 2012.” The president’s personal popularity, which grew after the elections and is positively assessed by 52 percent of the Americans, is in sharp contrast with the fact that only 35 percent of them believe that the country is marching in the right direction (6 percent down on last December). The Americans are, first of all, dissatisfied with the state of the national economy: they are not sure that the economy has at last returned on the path of sustainable development.
Yet it would be a simplification to say that social pessimism, so untypical for the US, was exclusively caused by economic factors. What was added to economic problems is the feeling of bitterness over failure to fulfill by far the most important promise of the new old president – to stop the political disputes that divide US society and to change the political climate in Washington. Four years on, the interparty face-off has reached a peak. A new stage of merciless fiscal wars is expected in the near future, when each of the sides will be guided by the principles “Take no prisoners.”
The impression is that, in spite of “peace-loving” rhetoric in the initial period of his presidency, Obama feels quite comfortable in the conditions of a tough face-off with the Republicans, having learned to receive the necessary political dividends and often evading a direct participation in interparty negotiations. By all accounts, in the next four years he will opt for continuing or even increasing the confrontation with his political opponents, trying to avoid compromises in what he views as crucial matters. In particular, what confirms this presumption are his nominations for a number of key ministerial offices and a declaration that he does not wish even to begin debates with the Republicans on increasing the national debt limit, which is the central point of the budget deficit discussion.
At the same time, the president and his advisors believe that they can split the Republican majority in Congress and enlist the support of “dissenters” for presidential legislative initiatives. It is also planned to turn more often directly to the US public, thus exerting pressure on Congress, as it was successfully done during the latest debate on resolving the “fiscal cliff” problem (45 and 33 percent of the Americans are inclined to put the blame for a likely default of the country on the Republicans and the Democrats, respectively). The latter was, rather, an exception, for in the previous period Obama and his team as a whole were not too skillful in the field of public communication.
Nevertheless, it was not clear until recently what the president would consider as top priority in his second term. Nor was this clear during the election campaign, for it was too focused on the political destruction of the rival but obviously bereft of fresh ideas. What made things clearer was the post-election period, with due account of some events and the reaction to them of Obama and his inner circle, as well as media leaks. The Obama administration is likely to focus its attention on the following fields:
1. Settling, on its own conditions, fiscal disputes with the Republicans over the public debt size and the budget deficit reduction. The way these problems will be tackled will not only have a direct impact on US economic revival, but is also part of a broader debate on the state’s optimal regulative role. In this context, it is worthwhile to heed the following opinion of US experts: as Obama does not need to try to be reelected, he will be further drifting towards the center during his second term, closer to the positions shared by the Democratic Party’s traditional electorate, its so-called backbone.
2. Reforming the immigration law. In this case, the president can count on support from a part of the Republicans who are worried over the prospect of losing almost entirely the Latino electorate. Demographers warn that in a few decades’ time the current minorities will constitute the majority of the US population and, hence, the majority of voters. The Senate is now studying a bipartite document which will apparently make it possible to grant illegal migrants US citizenship, introduce a new system of attracting foreign low-skilled labor, and, at the same time, increase sanctions against the businesspeople who hire illegal migrants, and issue more visas to high-technology specialists. If the president manages to persuade Congress to approve a radical immigration reform, the latter, together with the ongoing health care reform, can lay the groundwork for Obama’s political “legacy.”
3. Increasing the firearms sale control. What pushed this problem to the foreground of US public debates was a tragic death of 20 junior schoolchildren and their teacher who were shot by a mentally deranged youth later last year. This time the president, who tried to shun this highly sensitive issue (the right to own firearms is guaranteed by the US Constitution) in the previous four years, responded to the tragedy by introducing a series of proposals which include resuming the ban on selling assault weapons, reducing the rifle magazine capacity, and taking a closer examination of weapon buyer’s personal data. Most of these measures require an approval by Congress, where both parties have a traditionally powerful gun lobby. At the same time, the president can count on the support of 56 percent of the Americans who approve of his initiatives.
4. Climate changes. Taking into account the president’s unsuccessful attempts to get Congress to pass carbon emissions reduction bills, he is expected to further focus on bypassing Congress (in his first term, it was the raising of automobile standards). This time the White House is going to target on power plants, which account for about 40 percent of all carbon emissions in the US. What is expected to tip the scales in favor of the president is the changed mood of the Americans after the disastrous consequences of Hurricane Sandy.
What can be expected from Obama’s foreign policy? It is not a top priority in his second presidential term: by all accounts, Obama is determined to leave his imprint on history predominantly or, if possible, exclusively by way of implementing his domestic policy agenda. All the more so that he managed to fulfill the most urgent task on the international arena – to finish the military operation in Iraq and speed up the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which may signal the early end of the wars that have become a domestic policy factor, as they swallow immense financial resources and cause considerable losses among US servicemen. The elimination of Bin Laden was a vivid illustration of successes in the war on terrorism, in which the US has in fact created a new combat environment by using drones and applying cyber war methods.
On the whole, we can assume with a high degree of probability that, after the Monday inauguration, Obama will continue to pursue his previous policy which shows reactivity and a diminished, if not absent altogether, strategic vision, utmost pragmatism, and the intention to maximally limit the use of “hard” force. The shrinking resources in the security and foreign policy fields are an important factor that will cause Washington to apply more often the methods of multilateral diplomacy.
The year before last the US announced the shift of its attention towards the Asia-Pacific region. What prompts the US do so is an urgent need to invent a model of maintaining effective relations with China, by balancing between the curbing of Chinese military ambitions and the development of economic cooperation, as well as the growing interest of US business circles in the dynamic markets of this region. Besides, let us not forget North Korea with its nuclear warheads and unpredictable leadership.
Yet, international realities will hardly allow the US to disregard the problems of the Middle East and Africa, where several crises are evolving with a different intensity and the situation in Afghanistan is very far from being stable. Of special importance is the Iran nuclear program situation. The chances of the latter to turn into a full-scale and even a “hot” conflict have noticeably increased lately, which can leave Pres. Obama an extremely limited range of reaction options.
Even a brief list of the foreign policy challenges to which the Obama team is to respond one way or another explains why Europe in general and our region in particular have found themselves “on fold-up seats” in the Obama-era “theater” of US politics. In the next period, too, far from all the attempts of trans-Atlantic partners to coordinate their attitudes will materialize as joint approaches, let alone concrete actions, even though the US will be undoubtedly showing readiness to relinquish initiative to the Europeans whenever it deems it appropriate (for example, as it was in Libya). What looks like the most promising direction in the US-European cooperation are plans to make a deal in the economic field (probably, in the shape of a free trade area), which would allow reducing tariffs and giving an impetus to increasing the scale of mutual trade and investments.
Some “brain trusts” also advise Obama to show a similar pragmatism in the relations with Russia, putting emphasis on trade and programs of direct exchanges among the two countries’ citizens. Naturally, there are other things that caused these recommendations in this case: the “reset” policy has reached a deadlock. This became especially evident when Vladimir Putin reoccupied the president’s chair: he “reset the reset” by openly discontinuing the activity of a number of US organizations and programs and upstaging the US on the list of Russia’s partners. The bilateral relations took a steep downturn after the US Congress and the Duma had passed the Magnitsky Law and the law that bans adoption of Russian children by US citizens, respectively.
The reset no longer matters for the US due to a changed situation in Afghanistan, failed expectations for Russia’s essential help in the solution of the Iran problem, different approaches to settlement in Syria and to a number of other international political problems, including the security situation in a region adjacent to Ukraine. American society is also withdrawing its support of the reset policy, following the increased political repressions in Russia. What next? The answer to this question depends, not in the least, on Washington’s readiness to “correct the mistakes.”
As for Ukraine, I have written and said more than once about a likely evolution of the US policy towards our state. As before, I do not think this policy will essentially change – it will remain pragmatic and aimed at implementing the concrete agreements that fit in with the system of US interests. In such an important question as Ukraine’s European integration, the US will continue to coordinate its policy with the EU, taking into account the European Union’s leading role in this process. This means, among other things, that the US also believes that we will only be able to make progress on the way to European integration if our government carries out radical reforms and really adheres to democratic standards and respects human rights.