IS PRESIDENT Barack Obama, with nearly three years still to go until the 2016 elections, now a lame duck? This is the question gripping the American media since Mr Obama’s State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday. The right wing want it to be true while the liberal left are still rooting doggedly for the President, despite his disappointing the near-impossible expectations placed on him as the first black incumbent of the White House.
What do the polls tell us? Currently 42 per cent of Americans approve of how Mr Obama is doing his job. That compares with an average of 47 per cent for all presidents in their second January after re-election. That hardly suggests a complete meltdown in public support and it is a lot better than Richard Nixon (27 per cent). But it is well down on Lyndon B Johnson (60), Ronald Reagan (64) and Bill Clinton (61), suggesting Mr Obama remains a divisive figure rather than a unifying one. In fact, his job rating is only a whisker better than George W Bush at 43 per cent.
Without popular backing, and with his Olympian inability to schmooze self-important members of Congress, Mr Obama now lacks the necessary clout to get any legislation of significance passed before his term is up. In that sense he is a lame duck. But by the US system, a president has widespread executive powers. The brunt of Mr Obama’s State of the Union speech was to spell out that he intends to use those executive powers to the full. That’s just where problems could arise.
The area where a president has wide room for manoeuvre is in foreign affairs. However, unlike most recent presidents, Mr Obama cares little for engagement with the rest of the globe apart from displays of soaring rhetoric. Under Mr Obama, the US has turned ever inward to focus on domestic issues such as the economy and healthcare. After the foreign misadventures of George W Bush, that suits a lot of Americans just fine. But it has left the world without a global policeman of any sort, and many of America’s troubled allies are starting to complain.
Last year Mr Obama threatened to bomb Syria’s military assets when the odious Bashar al-Assad regime used poisonous gas against civilians. But after some neat diplomatic footwork by the Kremlin, Mr Assad offered to get rid of his stocks of gas, and Mr Obama ’s “red line” suddenly proved infinitely elastic. This compromise has discomfited America’s traditional allies in the area – Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. And when allies become worried about the support they are getting, they seek alternatives. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it could be heading towards acquiring its own nuclear shield.
Obama’s big initiative – rivalling Mr Nixon embracing of Mao’s China – is his overture to Tehran, following the election of Iran’s “moderate” president Hassan Rouhani. Already, Mr Obama has eased some of the existing economic sanctions on Iran in return for Tehran going slow on uranium enrichment. He has also threatened to veto any fresh sanctions being proposed by hard-line Republicans. However, a deal on the complete dismantling of Iran’s capability for manufacturing nuclear bombs remains at the “talks about talks” stage.
No-one doubts the diplomatic prize that would come from bringing Iran back into the family of nations. As well as halting the suicidal arms race in the Middle East, it might make Israel comfortable enough to pursue a peace settlement with the Palestinians. Plus the world would access cheap Persian oil and gas, reducing energy prices and boosting economic growth. Barack Obama ’s legacy would be secure.
Unfortunately, the jury is still out on the Iranians. My guess is that the prospect of economic ruin has made Tehran more pliable. But it is also probably the case that the regime’s theocratic hardliners are using Mr Rouhani to test America’s resolve. This is classic “suck it and see” diplomacy. If Mr Obama concedes too much, too early – which many fear likely because he is a lame duck president in a hurry, then Tehran will offer less in return.
Certainly, this is worrying Israel. Shia Iran’s leaders, Mr Rouhani included, have never wavered in wanting regional hegemony and victory over their Sunni rival states in the current, bitter religious civil war. Tehran could well disavow nuclear weapons for a decade or more in order to end sanctions and grow rich on oil.
Meantime, it would isolate Saudi Arabia from America and consolidate Iran’s influence in Lebanon and Syria. But by then Barack Obama will be writing his memoirs.
The problem is that Mr Obama thinks short-term and (despite rhetorical gifts) his vision rarely strays beyond what passes for politics in his Chicago stomping ground. Example: Mr Obama is desperate to pull out the last US combat troops from Afghanistan this year so – as he pointed out in his State of the Union address – he can claim he ended America’s longest ever war. But what then?
The White House is supposed to be negotiating a long-term security treaty with Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai, but relationships between the two sides are fraught. If there’s no deal, Afghanistan will fall to the Taleban, America will lose its drone bases to fight al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and the Asian dominoes will start to topple.
The real issue is less that Mr Obama is a lame duck as that he could start taking risks that posterity will have to live with. The good news is that there will be another American president along in a minute. Who will that be?
After the recent self-destruction of the Republican front-runner Chris Christie, the only name in town is the Democrat Hillary Clinton, who outpolls every other possible contender of either party.
Of course, Ms Clinton was front-runner for the nomination back in 2008 until the Congressional Democratic leadership deliberately backed a little-known, first-term senator called Barack Obama in order to sabotage her campaign.
The Democrat machine feared the experienced and steely Ms Clinton would know her own mind and be difficult to manipulate. They were right and we are living with the consequences.