Obama Has Been Humiliated, but He Is No Lame Duck

If anyone thinks a confrontation between a belligerent Congress and an embattled U.S. President is 'good for the Jews,' he's got another think coming.

Chemi Shalev
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President Barack Obama speaks as he campaigns for Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf, November 2, 2014.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev

American voters gave Barack Obama and the Democratic Party a stinging defeat in Tuesday's midterm elections, handing the Republican Party a glowing victory along with complete control of both houses of Congress. Washington wakes up Wednesday morning to a new political reality, with a weakened president and a battle-shocked liberal wing, on one side, and a belligerent Congress and emboldened ultra-conservative flank on the other.

While the television pundits were still debating whether the Republican advance could rightly be described as a “wave,” the accumulating election results began to look more like a political tsunami, on a scale that the Republicans themselves had never imagined.

By the time the ballots are all counted, the Republicans will have seized the Senate from the Democrats with solid 53-55 seat majority, they will have increased their majority in the House of Representatives to numbers unseen in the past 65 years and they will have moved their furniture into governors’ mansions in states that were widely assumed to be swinging the other way: Florida, Wisconsin, Illinois, Massachusetts and even Kansas, whose governor is widely perceived to have brought his state to the edge of economic ruin.

The results reflect widespread anger, resentment and dissatisfaction with President Obama’ s policies, and will be widely perceived as an unequivocal vote of no-confidence. At the same time, the blatant efforts of Democratic candidates to keep their distance from Obama and to treat him as if he had the plague also played a role in their dismal results and actually served as a boomerang: They alienated and insulted many of Obama’s hardcore admirers who preferred to stay at home rather than support their party’s disdainful candidates. The severity of the Democratic drubbing was thus determined by the enthusiasm of Obama’s haters combined with the indifference and resentment of his supporters.

Be that as it may – and there will be myriad reasons listed in the coming days for the Democratic debacle – the bottom line is that American politics has lurched to the conservative right on social issues and to the hawkish right on national security and foreign affairs.

The Republicans are set to thrash out their internal differences between those who would adopt a more constructive attitude towards the White House and those who will demand even starker confrontation with Obama, but there is no doubt that Washington this morning is even more split and polarized than it was before, hard as it is to imagine.

Nonetheless, while there is no denying that Obama has been humiliated in the eyes of Americans and of the world, it would be premature, perhaps even foolhardy, to diagnose him, as many Israelis undoubtedly will, as a lame duck of no further consequence. The American constitution bestows significant powers on the president, even one who has suffered such a stinging electoral loss, especially in the conduct of foreign affairs.

In fact, it is an open question whether the bellicose and contrarian Congress that some decision makers in Israel are dreaming of now would have more or less influence on the president’s moves as opposed to one that would seek constructive ways of collaborating with him.

In any case, the impact of the new Republican-controlled Congress, whose leaders are naturally inclined to support Israel and to admire Benjamin Netanyahu, would be most dramatically felt if and when the administration reaches a nuclear agreement with Iran. Such a development would most likely lead to a sharp clash over the president’s authority, or lack thereof, to gradually suspend sanctions against Tehran without the Senate’s approval.

If the White House decided to tackle Congress head on an issue on which, Tuesday’s outcome notwithstanding, it enjoys significant public support, the result could be an ugly political and constitutional confrontation, with Israel stuck in the middle. If anyone thinks this would be “good for the Jews,” he's got another thing coming.

Congress would have even less sway over the administration’s positions vis a vis the Palestinians, though it could huff and puff and persuade some Israelis that it might blow the house down. Though it seems that Israeli officials and politicians have been prematurely pressing the panic buttons in recent days with nightmare scenarios of an administration abandonment of Israel, it is true that Obama could decide to do so with relative impunity, especially if he loses any hope of collaborating with the new Congress.

Finally, it is always worthwhile to remember that there is an ebb and flow in both domestic and international affairs that is often unpredictable. It is hard to tell what lessons Obama will draw from these difficult days, whether he will withdraw from his political rivals and from public opinion, as he has before, or rather reengage with both in order to change the debilitating dynamics of the past few years and start anew.

Congress, for its part, may soon find out that it was not elected in order to prolong the paralysis that has plagued Washington but to try and find ways of breaking it and of getting the capital to start working again. Needless clashes with the president, therefore, may not stay on the Congressional cards for very long.

And while Republican Jews as well as Israeli right wingers may rejoice at the election results, they offer small comfort to more open-minded Israelis and to an even larger portion of American Jewry. Setting aside the issue of Israel and the Middle East, for which the new Congress holds scant promise, for many progressive-minded Jews the new political map spells out a new regression on social values and a departure from the norms that liberals hold dear.

The only positive thing that can be said in this context is to cite the ancient Chinese curse, actually a 20th century English invention, “may you live in interesting times.” The times indeed promise to be interesting, but probably in the negative sense of the word. 

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