Barack Obama: A Lame Duck or A Revitalised President?

In the aftermath of mid-term elections, many US Presidents enter the final quarter of their Presidency with limited political influence if their party has lost popular support. They are seen as ineffective occupants of office and are referred to as “lame ducks”.

As Barack Obama enters the final stages of his Presidency, and the 2016 Presidential Campaign begins, he is far from exempt from this lame duck challenge given the Democrats’ recent poor electoral performance.

In November 2014, the Republicans seized control of both Houses of Congress in mid-term elections. At this point, the prospects of continued significant domestic and legislative reform were much reduced, with many in the Washington establishment describing the elections as a ‘referendum on the President’.

The resulting collapse of Democratic representation in Congress has resulted in political deadlock and the most dysfunctional period in US legislative history.

This has forced the Administration to revert to extensive use of executive powers to deliver Obama’s electoral promises to the American people. Whilst similar to the lame duck challenges faced by past Presidents such as Eisenhower, Nixon, Clinton and Bush, the question is whether Obama can keep delivering regardless.

Obama Constrained But Resilient On The Domestic front

Second Term Presidents have historically struggled to implement significant domestic policy reform as the momentum of re-election quickly disappears, and many look beyond the incumbent towards who will be the President’s successor.

At the heart of Domestic policy is the economy, and here in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Obama is criticised by many for overseeing one of the weakest economic recoveries in modern times. In addition, issues such as the budget sequester and the Government shutdown of 2013 have cast significant shadows on the country’s economic performance.

Most recently however, the economy has grown at its fastest pace for over a decade, the deficit has shrunk by over two-thirds; 13 million private-sector jobs have been created, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 5.1%, it’s lowest since 2008. All of this is beginning to add up to a much more substantial presidential legacy, especially if momentum can be maintained in the face of a greatly strengthened dollar.

Much of this is credited to action taken in Obama’s first term such as the 2009 Stimulus bill, but since then little domestic reform has been achieved. Specifically, the Obama Administration continues to struggle in implementing its vision of ‘middle-class economics’; its proposals to increase the minimum wage, reform taxation, ensure equal pay and boost job growth face strong Republican opposition in Congress. 

In June, the Supreme Court upheld Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). This aims to increase the quality and affordability of health insurance, expand insurance coverage and reduce healthcare costs. Its introduction has witnessed positive outcomes for the health security of Americans with 15 million attaining the security of coverage. In addition, health spending has slowed and healthcare inflation is at its lowest level for 50 years. Despite these achievements, all Republican presidential candidates want the law repealed. Many believe the law represents a Government takeover of healthcare and have turned to court action to prevent its progress.

Obama’s remaining reform agenda may well be challenged domestically due in part to the political capital he invested in implementing this radical reform. For now however, his Healthcare reform is here to stay.

On the issue of sexual equality, the Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry right across the US, a cause that Obama had publically announced his support for in 2012. He described it then as a ‘victory for America’ in its long battle against inequality, making the Union a little more perfect. This is seen as a further domestic success for a President who advocated support for civil rights and gay marriage in his second inaugural address.

With regard to other domestic reforms, the numbing weight of Congressional deadlock is evident. For example, Obama’s pursuit of unilateral Immigration reform, to shield illegal immigrants and their children from deportation, faces significant legal challenges from Republicans who regard such actions as unconstitutional. Similarly, Obama’s attempts to reform gun control laws have failed in the face of congressional opposition, leaving the President all but powerless. His lack of influence and legislative ability within Congress on this subject has led him to describe gun control reform as the greatest frustration of his presidency.

Overall, while the Supreme Court has delivered two significant victories for the President and the economy continues to recover, the administration is severely limited in its ability to implement further domestic reforms without support from the Republican-controlled Congress.

Obama’s Foreign Policy Doctrine – A Remarkable Multi-lateral Transformation?

In recent months the President has used his relative autonomy over foreign affairs, both as Commander in Chief and with his Presidential authority to negotiate foreign treaties, and to cement significant and historic reforms into US Foreign Policy.

In July 2015, the US and the P5+1, reached an agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear programme. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of action, Iran agreed to limit its medium-enriched uranium, cut its low-enriched uranium by 98% and reduce by two-thirds its centrifuges for 15 years in exchange for sanctions relief. This deal continues to cause division across the US, with Republicans arguing that no deal is better than a bad deal. However, with enough confirmed Democratic congressional support declared, the President can be almost certain that the deal can go ahead without the need for a Presidential veto of Congressional objections. If this deal lives up to the Obama promise it could reshape the geopolitics of the Middle East and influence the future of nuclear security globally, demonstrating what can still be achieved through effective diplomacy.

Furthermore, a radical change in US foreign policy has seen the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba. At the end of 2014, Obama stated that, under his Presidency, the US was changing its outdated relationship with Cuba. Accordingly, the opening of the US Embassy in Cuba marks the long overdue re-establishment of diplomatic relations, which had been suspended since 1961. Here, lawmakers have accused Obama of legacy shopping and, as the President needs to nominate a US ambassador to Cuba, some Republicans aim to delay the confirmation process to reinforce their opposition. However this is likely to be in vain.

Obama’s key Middle Eastern objective of degrading and ultimately destroying the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), through an international coalition using airstrikes and providing military and financial assistance has presented mixed results so far. Overall, ISIL has lost over a quarter of the territories in Iraq it held and around 10,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria. However the group has continued to expand in Syria placing the Assad regime and US backed opposition forces on the back foot, meaning that the effect of this policy appears to be two steps forward, one step back.

The President has also led the international community in combating Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, brought about by their annexation of the Crimea and alleged support for pro-Russian rebel forces in the east of the country. This has been achieved by negotiating, and then imposing sanctions, which have applied significant economic pressure on an aggressive Putin regime, by helping plunge the Russian economy into a deep recession.

On climate change, another of Obama’s strategic priorities, the US has agreed a comprehensive climate deal with China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and introduce environmental safeguards. The US and China together, as the world most powerful nations, are responsible for 45% of carbon dioxide emissions globally.

Finally, the administration is currently negotiating two hugely significant trade deals. The first, with the EU is known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the second, with Asia, is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If successfully negotiated and fully implemented, these agreements would represent the most ambitious trade deals in history. In combination the agreements cover 40-50% of global GDP and TTP, and would embed US influence in Asia-Pacific in the face of the burgeoning economic influence of China. Obama was given fast track authority to complete these trade deals due to Republican support with 144 Democrats opposing the measure. This was a rare case in which Democrats opposed their own President, and a rampantly anti-Obama opposition saw beyond personal antipathy to support the Administration.

It is clear that President Obama continues to oversee a remarkable transformation in US foreign policy making. With authority to negotiate foreign treaties, he has been able to lead not only the US but also the world towards a more liberal-minded and multilateral foreign policy. Obama is clearly far from a lame duck president in foreign affairs due to his policy doctrine and the power that the US Constitution provides a President.

Lame Duck at home perhaps, but most certainly a Revitalised President Abroad

In Barack Obama’s own words: “My presidency is entering the fourth quarter; interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter”.  So far this has certainly been the case. Overall, it is clear that, while being somewhat of a Lame Duck at home, Obama is defying this narrative abroad. To quote an anonymous White House official “we are on the offensive”, and it is clear from Obama’s recent successes and the momentum that goes with them, that this is more than the usual hyperbole. Whether these successes, which are primarily associated with foreign policy, can spillover positively on to the domestic stage remains unlikely.

Author Biography

Christopher Bowerin is currently an undergraduate studying Politics and Business Management at Oxford Brookes University. Christopher has a strong interest in European and American politics, Middle Eastern Affairs, international conflicts and post-war reconstruction.

Twitter: @KBowerin

*Cover image ‘Barack Obama Visit 038‘ by Penn State

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