Obama’s Global Challenges

The US has the world’s largest economy and military and, like it or not, citizens around the world recognize that they must live with the presidential choice of US voters. Political analysts have estimated that US presidents tend to keep about 75 percent of their promises, and President Barack Obama has maintained a higher rate, reported at more than 80 percent during his first term in office. Journalist and author Bruce Stokes reports that a severe fiscal challenge demands Obama’s immediate attention: a 1 January deadline imposed by Congress for huge spending cuts unless an alternative plan to reduce spending and the deficit is approved. The health of the US economy determines how many of its foreign policy goals can be met. Apart from Pakistani anger at the use of drone strikes at suspected Al Qaeda militants, other contentious challenges include ensuring that Iran does not develop nuclear-weapons capability and completing two free- trade agreements with Pacific Rim nations and Europe. Stokes concludes that Obama’s biggest challenge may be bridging America’s internal divides as well as with its allies. – YaleGlobal

Obama’s Global Challenges

On most issues, Obama faces divisions at home and with allies
Bruce Stokes
Friday, November 9, 2012

Danger and division: Obama’s reelection pleases Indians (top); but anger grows in Pakistan against US reliance on drones that kill civilians

WASHINGTON: The American people have spoken. Barack Obama remains the president of the United States – and by extension leader of the world – for the next four years. The people of Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America had no say in this choice, but they must live with the consequences.  The policies pursued by the reelected American president, be it dealing with the economy, Iran, terrorism or trade, promise to have a profound effect on the lives and livelihoods of billions of people in all parts of the globe.

The promises that presidential candidates make on the campaign trail do not necessarily dictate the policies pursued, But presidents tend to attempt to implement their promises. Moreover, American public opinion on a range of issues facing the next president is clear, with priority on the economy, preventing a nuclear Iran and catching up with China. Obama will defy such sentiment at his political peril.

The potential for either collaboration or friction between the new administration and foreign governments is ever-present. Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans attempting to gauge the implications of Obama’s victory understandably wonder if commitments made in the heat of a US presidential election really matter once a candidate becomes president. They do.

“About 75 percent of the promises made by presidents from Woodrow Wilson through Jimmy Carter were kept,” concluded Michael Krukones in his 1984 book Promises and Performance: Presidential Campaigns as Policy Predictors. More recently, PolitiFact, the winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for its efforts to keep US politicians honest, concluded that of the 508 separate promises candidate Obama made during the 2008 presidential campaign, he broke only 88 – despite a polarized Congress intent on blocking Democratic initiatives.

Thus when a presidential candidate’s promise is buttressed by the support of the American public, or at least the backing of his party stalwarts, it may be safe to assume that he’ll try to implement that commitment. Some of Obama’s economic commitments will be tested over the next few weeks.

The US economy risks careening over what many call a “fiscal cliff’ in January 2013, when, as the result of the debt deal struck between Congress and the White House in August 2011, dramatic cuts must be made to defense and social-welfare spending and taxes must be raised unless a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan is agreed upon. The nonpartisan US Congressional Budget Office estimates that implementing such spending cuts and tax increases would shrink the American economy by 0.5 percent in 2013. Such a course would ripple through the global economy already hobbled by near recession in Europe and slowdown in China, India and Japan.

Doing nothing would mean that the US government deficit would remain above $1 trillion for a fifth consecutive year, risking a spike in interest rates that could slow growth anyway. Obama will be intensely involved in negotiations with congressional leaders about the “fiscal cliff” even before his 20 January inauguration.

Obama has promised to cut the federal budget deficit from 8.5 percent in 2012 to 3 percent by 2017 – by slashing defense spending from 4.6 percent of GDP to 2.9 percent by 2017 and raising tax rates from 35 percent to 39.6 percent for those making more than $250,000 a year, among other measures.

Obama faces a serious conundrum. Republicans, who in the past have opposed any proposals to increase taxes as part of a package of measures to deal with the deficit, remain in control of the US House of Representatives. Under current rules the Republican minority in the Senate has sufficient votes to block legislation.

Moreover, the American public is divided. They support a combination of budget cuts and tax increases, especially for the wealthy. By two to one, 44 percent to 22 percent, Americans say that raising taxes on incomes above $250,000 would help the economy rather than hurt it. At the same time, 56 percent oppose reductions in defense spending. There is strong resistance to major tinkering with government-funded entitlement programs, the national pension scheme and health insurance for the elderly – to reduce the deficit; 51 percent of Americans say that maintaining such benefits is more important than deficit reduction.

On other economic issues, such as trade, there is greater clarity as to the trajectory of US policy in the wake of the election. Obama is committed to completing the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement with nations surrounding the Pacific basin. In 2013, he’s expected to launch a free-trade agreement with Europe. And, if his campaign rhetoric is any clue, he’ll continue Washington’s “get tough” policy with China on trade issues. But all US presidents talk tougher on China, and earlier on Japan, than they actually act.

Obama will have mixed public support. Americans assume that free-trade agreements kill jobs and undermine wages, which could make a Trans-Pacific deal particularly hard to sell to Congress. At the same time, an October 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that by 49 percent to 42 percent, Americans preferred being tough in dealing with China on economic issues over building a strong relationship. Backing for this more hardnosed approach increased nine percentage points since March 2011.

The Obama reelection also has strategic implications. During the campaign, Obama promised that Iran would not produce a nuclear weapon on his watch. Now that he will continue as president, he has the support of the American people to be tough with Tehran. A majority, 56 percent, want him to take a firm stand against Iran’s nuclear program, even at the cost of a military conflict, according to a Pew Research Center survey in October. But less than half of Democrats and young people agree, signaling a potential break with his core constituency in any future confrontation.

Obama will lack public support for such action among many key nations around the world. There is almost universal opposition to the Iranian nuclear-weapons program across the 21 nations surveyed by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project in spring 2012. But among those who oppose Iran acquiring a nuclear arsenal, Americans’ support for the use of military force to halt Iranian efforts exceeds that in any other country: 63 percent of Americans would support military action, compared with 51 percent in France and Britain, 50 percent in Germany, 40 percent in Japan, 30 percent in China and 24 percent in Russia.

The absence of strong international backing for a strike on Iran only complicates the new president’s ability to build and hold together a united diplomatic front in any effort to deny Iran nuclear weapons.

Obama can be expected to continue the US-led efforts to fight terrorism, which enjoy 75 percent support among the American public. Drone strikes are supported by 62 percent of Americans, including 74 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of Democrats, and are likely to be one of the principal methods of prosecuting that war. But people in most other nations take a sharply negative view, portending difficulties.

American elections are consequential events, not just for the United States, but for the world. President Obama’s reelection is likely to bring to a head a number of long-smoldering economic and strategic concerns. He has a mandate to govern, but his mandate on specific issues is far from clear, facing opposition both at home and abroad. His biggest challenge may be to bridge the divides among the American people and with America’s allies.


Bruce Stokes is director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center. Additional details about public opinion on these and other issues can be found at Pewresearch.org. 

Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization