With Barack Obama re-elected as president of the United States, questions about its implications abound.
There was no change in the political structure, but the environment confronting him is different from that of 2009. First, the election showed that Americans are emotionally divided, that race and class played an unstated role. It appeared, at one time, as if Obama might lose given the political surge in Mitt Romney’s camp following Obama’s lackadaisical performance in the first presidential debate. With Romney urging voters to take back the White House, blacks felt threatened, forgot their internal differences and came out in record numbers to vote. The euphoria of four years ago turned into political melancholy. The expectations on Obama, a politically wounded president, are lowered. Obama, not the first president to find himself in such predicament, has his plate full with extraordinary domestic and international challenges. How he handles them will determine whether he will be perceived to be weak like Jimmy Carter or strong like Ronald Reagan and therefore influence the decision on who succeeds him at the White House in 2017. If he fails, even the democrats will distance themselves from him, as happened to Carter in 1980. The domestic list has two priorities. First is the healing of the divided country and he started well by inviting Romney for discussions on how to tackle the divide. Among the topics should be some white people feeling of “marginalisation” in what they believed was “Anglo-Saxon” country now being run by an “African.” Subsequently, the grumbling far right in such “Old South” places as Mississippi has started advocating secessionism. Such people will need to be contained before their influence can snowball. Second is the challenge of the dwindling economy, made worse by Hurricane Sandy in the last days of the campaign. This is compounded by war expenditure in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are times when wars stimulate the economy, especially if they are “splendid little wars”, but they mostly drain the economy. In many ways, Obama was a victim of previous Bush war policies. The international list also has priorities. United States is what Peking University’s Wang Jisi calls “comprehensive power.” It has the largest economy in the world and the most sophisticated technology and military. Yet it has been losing its global competitive edge economically and politically, mostly to China. The presidential debates showed both Obama and Romney competing to give the impression of being “tough” on China, an attitude similar to what Americans used to have toward the collapsed Soviet Union. China, also changing leadership, noticed the rhetoric.
Two days after the US elections, Vice-President Xi Jinping was “elected” China’s new leader. Obama has to deal with this methodical and tough defender of Chinese interests. The sensitivity with which Obama and Xi handle each on potential economic and geopolitical areas of friction will be an interesting game to watch.
Prof Macharia teaches at USIU-Nairobi