By Jayantha Dhanapala
The US Presidential Inauguration ceremony will be held in Washington DC on Jan. 21. The official theme for the 2013 inauguration is “Faith in America’s Future”. For many Americans, and indeed for many international observers, that faith is in desperate need of reaffirmation not only because of the domestic economic crisis, and the political paralysis in the US Congress over its solution, but also because of the decline of the US political power and influence internationally.
Obama’s second Inauguration Day falls in the same month as the 150th anniversary of the US Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863 during the American Civil War. Based on his constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces, Lincoln proclaimed all slaves in Confederate territory to be forever free ordering the Army to treat the slaves in the 10 states that were still in rebellion as free men, thus liberating 3.1 million of the 4 million slaves in the US. The Proclamation immediately resulted in the freeing of 50,000 slaves, with nearly all the rest (of the 3.1 million) actively freed as Union armies advanced.
Obama has the remarkable opportunity of making the same kind of Lincolnesque impact on the US liberating the economic under classes, the minorities and the illicit immigrants in US society from the dominance of what the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters call the “1%”. If a second term for President Obama is going to be more of the same as his first term, belying the soaring expectations of his supporters, then a series of expeditious and unprincipled compromises will be repeated paving the way for the return of the right-wing to the White House with disastrous consequences for the US and the world.
On the other hand, if the real Obama stands up for what he has espoused, matching his eloquent rhetoric with decisive practical actions, we may still see, domestically, a new US with its social injustices righted and its internal divisions bridged. Internationally, Obama could ensure a US participating in a global economic recovery and in an enlightened multipolar world order with the Arab spring transformed into a Global Spring of international peace and security, sustainable development and respect for human rights — finally proving that he deserved that Nobel Peace Prize.
Obama won the 2008 election as the first African-American president leading an enthusiastic coalition of liberals and moderates, minority Afro-Americans and Hispanics, women, youth and the lower-income groups. That coalition held together for 2012 — albeit much less enthusiastically because of their disappointments with Obama’s first term.
Paul Krugman, renowned professor of economics at Princeton and op-ed columnist at the New York Times, has perceptively seen the last US presidential election as a class war. Writing in the New York Times on Nov. 29, he says: “The important thing to understand now is that while the election is over, the class war isn’t. The same people who bet big on Mr. Romney, and lost, are now trying to win by stealth — in the name of fiscal responsibility — the ground they failed to gain in an open election.”
Another commentator, Francis Fukuyama, writing before the elections said: “Money, power and class continue to play out in American politics in highly complex and puzzling ways. Plutocracy has kept the system going despite the enormous policy failures it has generated, not to exclude the recent crisis.” The battleground of the class war will be the social and economic agenda of the US and there the fact that Obama will have the power to fill two vacancies on the Supreme Court in his second term is encouraging.
This “class war” aspect of the 2012 Presidential Election could be traced to a controversial decision of the conservative dominated US Supreme Court. Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission was a landmark case in 2010 when the Court held that the First Amendment of the US Constitution prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. By this narrow 5–4 ruling the Court removed the previous ban on corporations and organizations using their treasury funds for direct advocacy. Thus special interests groups were now free to expressly endorse or call to vote for or against specific candidates, actions that were previously prohibited.
Most Democrats and liberal commentators condemned the decision as tilting the scales in favor of the rich. Obama himself said in his State of the Union speech in 2010: “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.”
Predictably the 2012 US presidential elections were the most expensive ever with an estimated $ 5.8 million spent on the campaigns. While the Republican candidate Romney was the richest in history, Obama was not far behind in his campaign expenses. While Obama’s victory in terms of the electoral college was less impressive than in 2008 his popular vote margin was even thinner. Thus the pressures of the “class war” will persist in a highly polarized country.
The debate about the ‘fiscal cliff’ now revolves essentially about whether or not to raise the taxes of the super rich and enforce spending cuts in order to bridge or at least reduce the deficit. Obama will need all his political skills to craft a compromise with the Republican dominated House. Also on the domestic policy agenda is the problem of immigration, which will again raise strong sentiments.
On energy policy, the discovery of abundant quantities of shale gas is an unexpected bonanza. This will test Obama’s environment policies especially on climate change — brought into sharp focus by hurricane Sandy — over which he had already compromised in his first term. Reduced US dependence on foreign oil and its accompanying pressures to interfere in Middle East affairs may be another consequence.
On foreign policy the “pivot’’ to the Pacific from the Atlantic, because of the growing power of Asia in general and China in particular, will continue. It will be important for Obama to exercise restraint in fomenting the problems China has with its south-east Asian neighbors over the disputed islands in the South China Sea and to engage in other aggressive moves to “contain” China. The management of economic relations with China and its harmonious meshing with the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be a priority and protectionist pressures within US will not help especially as the new Chinese leadership is in its early days.
On Russian relations, a further nuclear disarmament treaty will have to be negotiated but the problem of ballistic missile defense systems deployed in Europe remains an obstacle. The resetting of the US-Russian relations button, which began in the first Obama term, has been stuck in this groove for too long. Relations with the European Union will remain harmonious but dependent on the economic recovery of both partners.
Netanyahu and his extremist foreign minister had thwarted Obama in his earlier efforts to negotiate a Middle East peace. That stalemate is unlikely to be broken if Netanyahu is re-elected as premier. Moreover the problems over Iran’s nuclear program will be acute unless the end of the Ahmadinejad presidency on Aug. 3, 2013 signifies a policy change.
Preventing an attack on Iran by Israel will have to be the primary aim relying on diplomacy to arrive at a solution acceptable to all.
The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2014 will finally result in the US not being at war anywhere in the world providing a great opportunity to cut military expenditure drastically. Nevertheless the insatiable military industrial complex of the US will want to provoke another conflict to sell its arms and Obama’s foreign policy will be put to a severe test.
However, as Jessica Tuchman Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it, “No ‘foreign policy’ issue in 2013 will matter as much to global economic, political, and ultimately security conditions as whether the United States and Europe are able to deal with their economic crises”.
Jayantha Dhanapala is a former ambassador of Sri Lanka and a former UN Under-Secretary-General. He is currently president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and a member of the governing board of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.