Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Readying for US elections

With two years to go before the end of the Obama presidency, the ground is heating up for the next US presidential contest, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

You would be hard put to find a political television programme or newspaper in the US these days that doesn’t include reference to the US presidential elections. President Obama still has two years left in power, but the political war over that position is already in full swing.

The chief instrument in this war is the press. To my mind, the press is now more fanatical, obstinate and narrow-minded than at any time since I first set foot in the new world in late September 1977.

The Democrats believe they have the legitimate right to govern the US. This is not just because Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic Party’s spiritual father, wrote the Declaration of Independence. It is also because a number of developments in American demographics have given the party a significant edge in the popular vote.

Immigrants from Latin and South America, whether they arrived in the US legally or illegally, have come to represent a significant proportion of the populace, overtaking African Americans as the largest ethnic minority. Hispanic Americans are generally inclined to vote Democratic. Since the end of the Cold War the Republican tendency among them, which was primarily informed by support for the continued blockade — and indeed for the invasion — of Cuba, has declined considerably.

Obama has spared no effort in his drive to win the Hispanic vote. In fact, his decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba helped. But far more important in this regard was the immigration law that he sponsored. This law grants nationality to around four million illegal immigrants who had been long-term residents of good standing in the US.

The Republicans have been working to maintain their original bases in the south and the Rocky Mountain region. They are doing this by opposing the immigration law and appealing to the moods of conservative pockets in the major industrial cities of the north. The result has been Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate.

This Congressional majority hands the party a huge opportunity that they are not about to let go to waste. They have the power both to promulgate legislation and to obstruct bills favoured by Obama. However, the most important weapon in the Republican arsenal is the decline in Obama’s popularity, which has plunged to its lowest level since he became president.

Ironically, that decline occurred when one would expect exactly the opposite. He has proven that he has “guts”. This is contrary to the Republican narrative that he is “weak” because he withdrew US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan before completing the US “victory” there.

He has shown that he is capable of taking difficult decisions that entail use of armed force, as occurred when he began to form the international coalition to fight Daesh (the Islamic State). No less important, his administration rescued the US economy, which began to collapse in September 2008, near the end of the Bush administration.

The US was plunged into a nightmare of two years of recession before light appeared at the end of the tunnel. That light has since turned to gleaming sunshine as the US economy has entered a cycle of growth that makes it stand out as a bright spot in a bleak global economy.

It is also amazing that Obama’s popularity ratings have declined even though he achieved a dream that had eluded all his predecessors: namely, US independence in energy production. Contrary to the decline, which began in the 1980s, to about five million barrels a day, oil production under Obama has risen to about 8.5 million barrels a day and is expected to increase by another million this year.

This accomplishment, moreover, was not solely the product of economic factors or the forces of the “free market”. It was the fruit of careful strategic planning that Obama’s administration undertook from the moment he took office in 2008. The aim was to achieve one of the strategic goals of all US administrations since the 1970s: ending US “dependency” on Middle East (and primarily Arab) petroleum resources.

Although Obama is generally categorised as a “liberal”, and sometimes even as a “socialist” on the American political spectrum, his policy on energy took aboard ideas favoured by conservatives. He promoted shale oil extraction, opened up large tracts of land to oil production in Alaska and facilitated petroleum exploration in the North Pole despite concern about potential environmental damage.

At the same time, he stimulates the use of solar power by supporting scientific research and offering financial support to manufacturers of solar panels. Moreover, his administration offered incentives to automobile manufacturers to produce cars that consume less gas or are powered by alternative means such as natural gas or electricity.

So why did Obama’s popularity decline despite all these achievements and in spite of the fundamental changes in US demographics? Obama accounts for it in public relations terms: he says he has not explained what he has achieved as well as he should have. The argument is not convincing.

Meanwhile, the Republicans keep up a constant refrain — “The time has come for change”— referring to that American virtue that makes the rotation of power between the country’s two major parties a means of refreshing political elites and ideas.

If approached from another perspective, Obama’s victories could also be construed as defeats. The US withdrawal from Iraq and the pending withdrawal from Afghanistan left Iraq a failed state and may bring Afghanistan to the threshold of failure, in light of the advances being made by the Taliban.

Also, what has been cast as an ability to take tough decisions with regard to recourse to military force could be seen as a blatant manifestation of weakness. This is in light of the fact that military intervention is restricted to aerial assaults while military experts say that the war against terrorism can only be won by ground troops.

While the economic recovery is undeniable, it is equally undeniable that it occurred by means of a distorted distribution of wealth that hurt the middle class and, even more so, the poor. Finally, the petroleum production boom was achieved through the application of ideas espoused, for the most part by conservatives.

The media battle has begun to coalesce around some concrete political cores, represented by Hillary Clinton for the Democrats side and Jeb Bush for the Republicans. The media is homing in on the characters and particular opinions of these individuals, creating something of an artificial battle from the standpoint of change.

What is new here? Certainly not Hillary, who has been around since she was first lady. After remaining by Bill Clinton’s side to the end of his term, she became a senator and then served as Obama’s secretary of state during his first term.

Jeb is yet another member of the Bush political dynasty. Throughout the past year, the Republicans have been profiling George Bush Sr, not only as a means to add glimmer to the image of his second son, but also to market the idea that political acumen is somehow genetically inherent in the son.

Have the battle lines been finalised? Is the contest to be between the Clinton and the Bush dynasties? Are they alone to represent Democratic and Republican ideas? Or will another candidate emerge and become the surprise of the presidential elections?

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