Thursday, August 7, 2014

I was recently asked a series of question for commentary by MODERN WEEKLY a Chinese publication that circulates nationally out of Beijing.

The questions reflect that there are many publications in China (all government owned and controlled) that are not all propaganda.

The questions and my responses in italics.

Q1: Several days ago, the House of Representatives voted to sue President Obama for abusing his power while carrying out his signature "Obamacare" health care reform bill in 2010. Though the Democrats denounced the move as a cynical election-year stunt, Obama has indeed met obstacles in getting his substantial legislation through Congress. With two years and a half left in the Oval Office, has Obama entered the lame-duck session earlier than the conventionalWhat does his governing ability depend on?

The general feeling is that there is little expectation that the Obama Administration will be able to carry out any substantive policy changes in the next two years. If the mid-term elections in November this year give the Republicans control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives the President's prospects will be even more isolated.
The President's lame-duck status has occurred earlier than usual. The cause is the  
polarization of American politics that poses a risk to the American legislative system that is fundamentally based on compromise.

2: This fall's midterm election will be an intense battleground in which the Democrats and Republicans race for Senate and House seats. Apparently what the Democrats worry most is the loss of control in the Senate. What adverse factors do you think the Democrats now face and how will the result of midterm election affect the two parties' move following up?

The fact is that in the House of Representatives there are few truly contested seats. Most Representatives have succeeded in creating what the British call "rotten boroughs", districts that overwhelmingly support the incumbent candidate. More than 80% of House members are almost automatically re-elected. a situation that threatens the foundation of electoral politics, and makes shifts in control unlikely.
Conversely Senators must stand for election throughout a state with a better balance of voters. But here too the polarization of American politics has created sections of the country where opposition parties have an increasingly difficult time being anything more than a minority at election time.
This midterm election is too close to call. If the Democrats lose control of the Senate, there are some who say this may be a better result for the President than the current split between Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate. The current split leaves a stalemate. An opposition legislature gives the President a clear adversary.  

Q3: Thorny domestic issues like immigration, health care, economy and so on, which one do you think Obama should put into priority in order to make gains in the next few yearsCan you have an analysis of the two parties’ policy over major domestic issues?

There are many "ifs" in this question.
If the Democrats lose control of both houses of Congress there will be no substantive legislation passed on the President's agenda. Immigration reform will be dead. The Republicans will likely attempt to nibble away at Obamacare along with attempts to push their favored economic concept: tax cuts. This will put the President in a position of vetoing Republican led legislation that will further stall the legislative process.
If the Democrats maintain control of the Senate, the President may try to produce compromise legislation on immigration reform; but the chances are slim. Obamacare will remain safe unless there are further court challenges that prove successful. 
The US economy continues to improve. If that pattern holds, the President's best bets are economic initiatives (including a rise in the federal minimum wage). 

Q4Surveys have repeatedly found Obama's approval ratings on international affairs are at an all-time low. With no apparent solution to end the violence in Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and little breakthrough in Iran talks, is America having less impact over global issues or is Obama becoming more restrained to "lead" the world? 

The past impact of the US on foreign conflicts may seem larger than it was. That may be what we are seeing now. 
The conflicts in the Middle East have changed little in the last decade. 
The Israeli-Palestinian confrontations move from armed conflict to intractable negotiation. 
The Syrian Civil War continues but the major powers have not intervened directly on either side. If anything that is a positive. 
The Ukraine is President Putin using foreign policy to keep his domestic image popular. While successful, the US and the EU have also coordinated boycott policy to isolate Russia as much as possible. The Russian economy is weak and threatens to weaken. By some measure this is a success of US-EU foreign policy. 
Iran has no obvious imminent solution, but diplomatic talks currently underway will likely lead to a longer-term solution. One thing is clear. Neither side wants or speaks of a conflict.
This leaves the public with headlines about armed conflict in Gaza, civil war in Syria, and armed conflict in the Ukraine. The impressions are fearsome, but the facts support a view that the heavy reliance by the US and the EU on diplomacy and diplomatic tools, including economic boycott, are proving slowly but relatively successful. 
Iran may be the most positive example of change. The very lack of conflict does not make for headlines and therefore gets lost in the noise of combat elsewhere.

Q5: Will the international crises emerging in a row divert U.S.'s attention from Asia, especially as a response to China's economic and military might?

Yes and no. 
There is no question that the areas of conflict in the rest of the world preoccupy both the US and the EU and leave less time and effort for Asia. Despite the continuing conflicts over disputed islands in Asian waters, the threat of armed conflict is more noise than reality. There is the current likelihood of high level negotiations between China and Japan to lower the level of threat and tension; despite continuing verbal bluster to the contrary.
China continues her growth economically and militarily, but the economic rate of growth is reduced. That presents China with domestic concerns to provide for 22 million new jobs every year, continued reform in education, as well as the ongoing policy of fighting corruption at all levels. 
The growth of China's military can be seen two ways. The PLA as recently as the last decade was outmoded. A military based on manpower when modern military challenges are technological, not based on the size of an army and navy. 
Modernization has been the policy of Chinese military growth and will continue to be for the next decade and more. This is a long-term necessity. To others this may seem threatening, but the Chinese military and civilian leadership know that the changes are still catching-up to the reality of modern military needs.

Q6: What do you suggest Obama should do to walk himself out of the predicament and gain more room for administration?

President Obama has a good sense of humour. I expect his answer to this question might be: "Advance the calendar to January 2017 and let me get out of here."
There is little if anything President Obama can do proactively to improve his ability to govern. Too much depends on hope. 
Hope that the Democrats can hold onto the Senate majority. 
Hope that the Republicans continue their internal conflicts between their right wing and their less strident center and thereby weaken their ability to take initiatives. 
The unlikely hope, but still a hope that one of the more conservative Justices of the US Supreme Court retires and gives the President the opportunity for an appointment closer to his political philosophy.
The President can and will take foreign initiatives. He will continue to emphasize diplomacy over military engagement. If successful, this will create a better image for US foreign policy and Mr. Obama's leadership. That can have positive effects on his ability to undertake domestic initiatives.
But the final two years will be what they always are, a struggle against legislative irrelevance as the political reality looks forward to 2016 and an open race for the next American President. 

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