US Affairs: The Presidential Elections and Beyond
Since 1991, the United States of America has been the sole superpower. Not surprisingly, domestic and international developments involving the United States often dominate current affairs. Right now, the world media is watching the US Presidential election primaries with President Barack Obama running for a second term. Several burning questions have dominated the news and internet public sphere.
Will President Obama win a second term in office or will this be a one term presidency? Why is the US political system is so muddled up? Do elections have any impact on US foreign policy? What are the roots of America’s bipolar domestic politics and foreign policy? Are we witnessing the last days of the American-led international order?
Obama’s First Term
This year, one of the biggest items in world news is the upcoming US Presidential Elections on November 6, 2012. Incumbent Democrat President Obama is facing a determined challenge from his Republican adversaries for the highest ranking job in the world – President of the United States, Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military in the world, and finally the public face of the US government. Barack Obama’s ascendancy has rightfully been regarded as a historic milestone.
He was the first non-White President, an African-American with mixed Kenyan and White roots. For many Americans, Obama symbolizes the aspirations of minorities to soar to the highest levels in the most powerful Western nation. While racial tensions still linger in modern America, his successful ascendancy shows that colour barriers at the highest levels have been overcome. Obama’s brief childhood stint in Indonesia has strengthened his appeal to Muslims, helping to mend bridges between the West and Muslim World.
Despite much opposition from Congress, the Obama Administration has passed or attempted to pass several key pieces of legislation. He extended health care insurance to reach lower-income Americans, invested in sustainable energy sources (including solar heating and a vegetable garden at the White House), and ended the military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy.’ President Obama also completed America’s withdrawal from Iraq. The Iraq War generated much controversy due to the lack of compelling of evidence for Weapons of Mass Destruction. However, he has also escalated troop involvement in Afghanistan where the Taliban have regrouped.
In 2011, Obama personally oversaw a successful military operation called Operation Geronimo (Neptune Spear) which eliminated Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda mastermind behind 9/11. This alone helped dispel allegations by the political Right that he is a closet Muslim. On the downside, Operation Neptune Spear brought US-Pakistani relations to their lowest ebb since 9/11 due to violations of Pakistani airspace and territorial sovereignty.
This coincides with Wikileak’s damming allegations of Islamabad’s covert support for the Taliban resistance in Afghanistan. While Pakistan was a close strategic partner of the US throughout the Cold War, US foreign policy in South Asia since the 1990s has gradually tilted in India’s favour which it views as a strategic counterweight to growing Chinese influence. Since May 2011, the US has downscaled economic aid to Pakistan over allegations that Pakistani officials knowingly harboured Osama.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has faced several setbacks like the toothless Dodd-Frank Bill (which attempted to regulate the US’s messy financial sector), heavy losses in Congress during the 2010 midterm elections and the Senate’s veto of proposed income taxes on the top 30%. However, other predecessors like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt also faced enormous obstacles to implementing landmark policies which many now take for granted: the abolition of slavery in America by 1865 and a financial New Deal policy which helped lift the US out of the Great Depression.
At least, Obama has made an attempt to reduce socio-economic inequality in the States and to regulate Wall Street institutions, whose actions contributed to the 2008 Financial Meltdown. Throughout US electoral history, most incumbent administrations have sustained losses during midterm elections. In 1994, Bill Clinton lost control of both houses of Congress to the Republicans but then went on to win a second term in 1996.
US GOVN1001: A Basic Primer
Most knowledgeable people including political science students would have a basic understanding of American politics. The United States is a federal constitutional republic of fifty states with their own state governments for managing local affairs like tax revenue, education and law enforcement. However, the US federal government controls foreign policy, defence and federal legislation takes precedence over state laws. The US federal government consists of three major branches: the legislature, executive, and judiciary. Congress is the national legislative body with the power to make, amend and repeal laws. As a bicameral body, its two main components are the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Due to a “winner-takes-all” majoritarian electoral system consisting of geographical constituencies, the US has retained a classic two-party adversarial system for much of its history. Binary politics has become permanently infused into the political landscape for generations. Consequently, it is very hard if not impossible for minor parties to gain electoral seats and thus influence legislation and government policy-making.
Unlike Westminster parliamentary democracies like Singapore, Malaysia and Britain, the USA has a presidential system with the President having the dualistic role of Head of State and Head of Government. In contrast, parliamentary systems following the British Westminster model (like Singapore) place executive leadership in the hands of the majority party’s leader. Within Westminster systems, the Head of State is a figurehead position with limited powers.
Meanwhile, the executive branch is led by President and consists of the armed forces and government bureaucracies like the FBI, Department of State and CIA. The President is elected for a four-year term but can constitutionally run serve a second term. Another lesser known fact is that legislative elections occur every two years which explains why the Republican Tea Party was campaigning so vigorously in 2010.
Due to constitutional checks-and-balances delineating the legislature and executive, it is possible for those two branches to be dominated by different parties. Thus in 2006, Republican George
W. Bush remained in office despite the Democrats winning control of both houses of Congress and a majority of the governorships and state legislatures. Similarly in 2010, Obama remained President despite a similar scenario where the Republicans regaining the House of Representatives.
As a two-party democracy, US administrations only last several years in office. Thus, both parties compete for public support through the media and connections with certain lobbies and interest groups. Since the 20th century, the Democratic Party has drawn its electoral support from ethnic minorities, blue-collar workers and middle-class liberal professionals and intellectuals through socially progressive policies like Roosevelt’s New Deal and Civil Rights legislation.
Meanwhile, the Republicans tend to be associated with social and religious conservatives, right-leaning libertarians, and business interests. It has also implemented key landmark policies like the Emancipation Proclamation and neoliberal-oriented Reaganomics. In the present, the Democrats have tried to promote an image of a diverse post-racial America adhering to international norms and gender equality. In contrast, the Republicans have emphasized a realpolitik American-first approach stressing unilateral interventionism, and adherence to conservative Judeo-Christian norms and free-market policies.
2012 Electoral Campaign
Every even year, America undergoes election hype. Presidential elections get the most media coverage in the since their results will determine the public face of America. In the US, presidential candidates are selected in state and national primaries where political leaders campaign for the support of registered party supporters. Currently, the incumbent Barack Obama is the preferred Democratic candidate, having secured overwhelming support in the Democrat primaries. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has fielded several different candidates since 2011.
As of April 25, the strongest Republican candidate is Mitt Romney, a Mormon and former Governor of Massachusetts. Having won primaries in five states, Romney is well on the way to winning the Republican presidential nomination. Romney’s successes suggest that his Mormon beliefs are no barrier to the GOP’s Evangelical Protestant support base. Mitt Romney’s candidacy is significant since he will be the first Mormon presidential candidate to win the endorsement of a major. If he is very lucky, he would be the US’s first ever Mormon President. Besides being pro-life and opposing ‘Obamacare’, he supports oil drilling and a tough stance on China.
Other Republican candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt
Gingrich have announced their withdrawal from the campaign. With abysmal results in the Republican primaries, it remains uncertain how long Ron Paul can keep on campaigning. As a libertarian and follower of the Austrian School of Economics, he supports an individualist approach to society and advocates slashing government spending and taxes. However in contrast to neoconservatives like George W. Bush, he advocates shrinking the vast American military-industrial complex, opposes foreign military interventions and government bail-outs to big corporations, the traditional allies of the political right. While many might reject his ideas as too individualistic or abstract, commentators like Ralph Nader have acknowledged that his honest straight-talk resonates with many Americans dissatisfied with the state of the economy.
Major issues in the 2012 Presidential Elections include the poor state of the US economy, high unemployment and the debt-ceiling crisis. Economic recession has forced the US federal government to cut back on public expenditure with some libertarians like the Tea Party movement advocating severely curtailing the state’s functions. In domestic politics, Democrats support more government intervention in the economy to maintain a social security net while the Republicans support small government and favour business interests. Meanwhile in foreign policy, the Democrats support winding down military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan while the Republicans want to escalate military involvement.
As the leading superpower, US hegemony is a familiar modern phenomenon. The Secretary of State (currently Hillary Clinton) is the public face of American foreign policy and a high profile position given the significance of America to the international order. For decades, the USA has succeeded in importing its liberal democratic cultural norms and free market system on a global scale. The US still maintains the largest and most advanced military force with four distinct branches. While we tend to associate foreign policy with diplomacy, international institutions and military force, American influence is also felt in everyday culture, consumer goods, and technology.
In terms of foreign policy, Obama has not diverged much from his predecessors. The Obama Administration has maintained its pro-Israel tilt in the Middle East due to the presence of a sizeable pro-Israel lobby consisting of prominent American Jews and Evangelical Christians. Evangelical support for Israel stems from eschatological theological beliefs that the Jewish state has still has an important role to play in Biblical prophecy and remorse for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. Both major parties have competed with each other for being the most pro-Israel. Consequently, it is exceedingly difficult for American administrations to diverge from the US’s pro-Israel stance due to the mix of big bucks and religious zeal.
America’s unyielding support for Israel has generated much resentment in the Muslim world particularly Arab states. The Palestinian problem has fuelled the rise of Islamic fundamentalist movements like Hamas, al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah which view the West and Israel as infidels, and advocate the restoration of the Caliphate. The Afghanistan and Iraq Wars are likewise viewed as Western-Zionist crusades targeting the Muslim Umnah. Within the bipolar mindset of American foreign policy, radical Islam seems to have supplanted Fascism and Communism as the enemy “bogeyman.”
The US’s schizophrenic approach to the 2011 Arab Spring reflects the prioritizing of American security and strategic interests over Arab aspirations. Washington’s discomfort over the loss of friendly authoritarian regimes like Egypt’s Mubarak regime is rooted in fears that more democratically-representative alternatives like the Muslim Brotherhood would be less compliant with American and Israeli strategic considerations. The activist interventionist policy towards Gaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya contrasts with its tight-lipped silence in Bahrain where the Sunni elite has suppressed Shia pro-democracy supporters. The isolation of the Asad regime in Syria is part of Washington’s strategic efforts to undermine the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah Shi’ite axis.
As part of de-escalating its involvement in Iraq and subsequently Afghanistan by 2014, the Obama Administration has also trimmed troop numbers. Meanwhile, Washington has turned its sights to the Asia-Pacific region, seeking to balance China. The establishment of a military base in Darwin, Australia reflects a desire to re-engage with the region. The recent Hollywood blockbuster Battleships pitting the US Navy against aliens reflects American attempt to romanticize their role in international affairs. The portrayal of the US Navy of heroes and Alien invaders as the antagonistic “Other” merely reinforces this bipolar worldview.
Since the end of the Cold War, the US has trimmed down its presence in the Asia-Pacific. Now, the re-emergence of China as a global economic powerhouse presents a challenge to Western dominance. While the US and other Western governments have tied democratic norms and neoliberal adjustments to developmental assistance, China has provided cheap loans while not seeking to impose its values and interfere in its recipients’ internal affairs. This explains Beijing’s friendship with unsavoury undemocratic and authoritarian regimes in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, North Korea and Fiji. However, the US has its fair share of supporting unsavoury dictatorships like Apartheid
South Africa, Pinochet in Chile, Mobutu in Congo, Marcos in the Philippines, and even Saddam Hussein in Iraq for its own strategic goals.
Singapore’s own recent experiences with the US including the Michael Fay episode and the Yale-NUS sage reflect the pervasive influence of American bipolar antitheism. The USA is very important to Singapore’s foreign relations; encompassing political, economic, military and ideological paradigms. However while Singaporeans are malevolently aware of the US, many Americans tend to overlook the Republic as a little red dot. Some cannot even pinpoint Singapore on the map or think it is part of some large country.
Politically, Singapore has encouraged the US to engage in Southeast Asia to maintain the regional balance of power. Regional stability is closely tied to economic prosperity which is linked to the performance legitimacy of governments. Singapore is the largest export market for American electronics, machinery and equipment while bilateral US-Singaporean trade exceeds the US trade with all its Free Trade partners outside the American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) including Australia and Israel.
Most countries in the region including Singapore have extensive defence ties with the US including joint training exercises and shared military facilities. In 2003, Singapore became the first Asian port to participate in the US Container Security Initiative where American customs inspect outgoing exports bound for US ports. Ideologically, Singapore’s support for free trade and pro-business investment policies resonates well with American capitalism. Finally, cultural Americanization in Singapore is pervasive and encompasses Hollywood, X-Box games, Christian evangelism, Microsoft and fast-food outlets.
Given his achievements despite great adversity, Barack Obama has a good chance of being re-elected. He may return with a slim majority but he still maintains the support of liberal constituents like the youth, ethnic minorities, women and the LBGT community. His most likely opponent is Mitt Romney, the first significant Mormon Presidential candidate. The Republicans will push a strongly conservative platform by exploiting the dissatisfaction of the ‘silent majority’ and the Christian Right towards Obama’s centre-left policies. They will also try to entice traditionally Democrat-voting Jewish Americans by playing the Israel Card.
2012 will be a hard-fought election which reflects the impact of bipolarism in shaping American domestic politics and foreign policy. Americans subscribed to a black-and-white world view have tended to idealize their civilization as a positive force in international affairs which balances against more repressive powers. Throughout history, bipolarism has shaped American domestic politics as exemplified by the American Civil War, the clash between Isolationists and Interventionists during the World Wars, the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War and the current War on Terror and Culture Wars.
The Culture Wars refers to divisions within American society over moral and societal issues including homosexuality, abortion, stem cell research, evolution, and climate change. It too has been simplified as a clash between religious fundamentalists and secular progressives. Throughout its history, the energies of both American domestic politics and foreign policy have been directed against enemy ‘Others’ including British imperialism, slavery, Fascism, Communism and Islamism.
Economic forces, geopolitics and historic developments have placed the USA in its current position of international hegemony. However, recent developments have led some commentators to argue that the US is undergoing a decline in cohesiveness and international influence. They cite soaring unemployment, income inequality, rising ethnic tensions and the decline of American industrial capacity as symptoms of decline. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street protests reflect growing clashes over contending visions of American society and socio-economic redistribution.
This echoes a view upheld by
academics like Jared Diamond, Niall Ferguson and Noam Chomsky that all empires or great powers undergo five stages of development: infancy, pastoralism, consummation, decline and desolation. In response, rosy-eyed patriots like the late Ronald Reagan, Bill O’Reilly and Mark Lind have argued that the US has faced great crises but rebounded and always emerged stronger than before. However, this view has limited support outside America.
While it has decline, the US still remains a force to be reckoned with due to its political prowess and military muscle. However, history shows that no great power can last forever. Its decline would have enormous implications for the global economy and international state system. With overpopulation, urbanization and dwindling global resources, are we seeing the demise of the American-led global economic order known as Pax Americana? Are we entering a new dark age precipitated by ideological bipolarism and over-consumption of natural resources or will we enter a new multipolar world order linked by a global economy?