The midterm Congressional Elections in the U.S. on Nov. 4 marked a setback for the Obama Administration, as Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 2006.
The Republicans have already owned the majority of seats in the House of Representatives since 2010, and have now captured a narrow majority in the Senate as well with 52 seats, while the Democrats have 45. Tight races in several states and widespread attempts by Democratic candidates to distance themselves from U.S. President Barack Obama’s policies during the campaign are warning signs that it may be time for Obama to institute some policy changes.
The election results have truly turned Obama into a lame duck. Over the final two years remaining in his presidency, Obama will be under heavy pressure from a hostile Congress and will be forced to compromise on many of his policies. Besides domestic repercussions, what will be the impact of a Republican Congressional majority on U.S. foreign policy?
According to the U.S. Constitution, the president is in charge of formulation and initiation of foreign policy, whereas Congress has a limited role. Foreign policy is usually where U.S. presidents are able to forge their legacy, and Obama is no exception. However, he has not been able to come up with a success story in his foreign policy yet. Could this situation finally convince him to opt for a more active and interventionist foreign policy during his last two years in office?
Although Obama chose to focus on Southeast Asia and the Pacific in his second term, he has failed to do so because of the demands of other international developments. He has already signaled that his priorities over his last two years will be to fight against the spread of Ebola and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), deal with a resurgent Russia, finalize a deal with Iran, reach a trade deal with Asian countries and finally to pivot Asia-Pacific relations.
The most critical issue, as far as the Republican Congress is concerned, would be the deal with Iran. While the deadline, Nov. 24, is fast approaching and there is still much work to be done, the Obama administration intensified its efforts to achieve a breakthrough. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif met in Oman this week to ensure that everything is on track. Yet, the new Congress could probably force tightening sanctions on Iran, which would be vetoed by Obama. The president can use his executive authority to relax the sanctions, but he needs Congress’ support to lift them permanently. Even if he can strike a historic deal with Iran, which is unlikely, or a continuation of the negotiations, there will be acrimonious discussions in Congress about Iran’s real intentions.
Obama needs new authorization in his fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, since the last one dates back to 2001. Congress is likely to take a more hawkish position on this than the administration is prepared for. As Obama’s policy in Iraq and Syria is still very vague, there will be pressure on him to be more active. Response to recent Russian aggression in Ukraine is another area where Congress would try to push Obama towards a more forceful stance.
A Republican Congress, on the other hand, could help Obama get his trade deal with 12 Asian countries. He has hesitated to bring this issue to Congress because of opposition within his own Democratic party. Now, Republicans might support his vision to realize the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will also pave the way for the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the EU.
Accomplishing this might provide Obama an opportunity to initiate his foreign policy revamp in Asia and the Pacific. Yet, as he has already spent too much time on the Middle East, it might already be too late to pivot Asia-Pacific relations.
Given his previous track record and the new situation he finds himself in with a Republican Congress, Obama will continue to struggle to establish his legacy through foreign policy.