It would have been difficult, after the 2014 elections, to imagine that President Barack Obama could achieve much of anything in his last two years in office. After all, the opposition Republican Party had taken control of both houses of Congress in the midterm elections in 2014. The Supreme Court, led by the right-leaning Chief Justice John Roberts, maintained a narrow conservative majority. And the president’s approval rating had dropped below 50 percent – in and of itself not so surprising for a president in his second term but a significant obstacle for a leader hoping to marshal public support for his agenda.
And yet here we are, only a few months after the new Congress took up residence on Capitol Hill, with a suddenly resurgent president. Just in the last few weeks, President Obama has been scoring a surprising number of domestic and foreign policy victories. His critics are cowed. The president reached a 50 percent public approval rating for the first time since May 2013.
In recent weeks, the Supreme Court gave the president a clear victory on the Affordable Care Act, a piece of legislation on which the Republican Party has loudly declared war. Whatever the flaws of “Obamacare,” the extension of health care benefits to millions of the uninsured will go down as a signature legacy of the Obama administration.
The administration was slow to get behind same-sex marriage (and it was Vice President Joe Biden who first endorsed the movement back in May 2012). But eventually the president acknowledged that his position on the issue had “evolved” and threw his support behind this important expansion of human rights. “We have made our union a little more perfect,” the president said after the Supreme Court extended the right to same-sex marriage to all 50 states.
Meanwhile, on the foreign policy front, the president is close to achieving exactly the kind of diplomatic rapprochement with longstanding adversaries that he promised when he was a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for president back in 2008.
This week, Iran and the P5+1 (the UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany) are hammering out perhaps the most important agreement on non-proliferation since the end of the Cold War. The agreement, in addition to freezing Iran’s nuclear program, will likely usher the country back into the international community.
As long as the nuclear deal clears its remaining obstacles – which remain substantial, including congressional approval – it will represent an important model for how the international community deals with so-called rogue states. Endless containment and military intervention have proven quite ineffective over the past 20 years (in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, in North Korea). As long as a deal with Iran can be reached, diplomatic engagement will have an important contemporary example to add to the U.S.-China détente.
There’s also the rapprochement with Cuba, which the Obama administration has accelerated over the last few months. The two countries have just announced the exchange of embassies – the first time in more than 50 years. Ferries will soon be running between the two countries. U.S. tourists have already begun to pour into Cuba. Still, numerous obstacles remain, including the economic embargo that Republicans in Congress insist on keeping in place. These opponents are beginning to sound like they’re stuck in the 20th century.
Obama once spoke of “purple America.” In his speech at the Democratic convention in 2004, he dismissed the notion that the United States could be neatly sliced and diced into “red states” (conservatives) and “blue states” (liberals). Coming into office in 2008, he imagined that he could revive bipartisanship and build an enduring consensus for his political, economic, and foreign policies.
That has been his signal failure as a politician. He was unable to enlist the support of his political opponents. Most of his domestic programs – such as health care – received almost no support from the Republican Party. And he has pursued his more diplomatic foreign policy despite the often overwhelmingly hostile opposition of the Republican Party (not to mention quite a few hawkish Democrats as well).
In this way, the president has learned an important lesson. He can win on these key issues when US public opinion goes his way. Polls have shown that the American public supports Obamacare, gay marriage, and rapprochement with Iran and Cuba. The president has been able to score these late victories not by working with the opposition but by isolating it.
Ordinarily, the discrepancy between public opinion and the platform of the majority party in Congress should force a shift in the political landscape. To win in the next presidential election in 2016, the Republican Party might be expected to move to the center to appeal to independents and more hawkish Democrats. But the Republican Party candidates for presidents are by and large more conservative than even the most recent choices (Mitt Romney in 2012, John McCain in 2008).
President Obama is not a radical. He generally situates himself in the political center, espouses a rhetorically impressive but rather narrow pragmatism, and has mostly avoided economic populism. He has curried favor with the Pentagon, with Wall Street, with pharmaceutical companies. It is a sign of how far to the right America drifted during the George W. Bush era (and, indeed, during the preceding Clinton years) that Obama’s centrist agenda has elicited such a strong reaction from his opponents both inside and outside Congress. It is also a sign of Obama’s centrism that most of the Democratic candidates for president are running to his left, particularly on economic issues.
What begins as heresy often very quickly becomes conventional wisdom. Such is the path that gay marriage, national health care, and rapprochement with Cuba have taken. But Obama has succeeded only because public opinion is behind him on these issues.
The candidates who hope to replace him should take note. The next American president could win on a number of issues that provoke the ire of conservatives but have broad public appeal: seriously addressing climate change, reining in military spending, enacting immigration reform, stabilizing Social Security, and securing a living wage for workers nationwide.
But why wait until 2016? Obama might even get the ball rolling on these issues in the next two years. After all, he’s on a roll himself.
Hankyoreh, July 12, 2015