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Obama and the Right Way

The crushing mid-term electoral defeat may force President Barack Obama to change course on several policies. And India could benefit from this. Pramit Pal Chaudhury reports.

delhi Updated: Nov 04, 2010 00:13 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhury

US President Barack Obama has to turn right. That is the fundamental political fallout of the drubbing the Democratic Party received in this week's mid-term election. The question countries such as India are asking is: where will be the compromises made? There are four policy areas where a rightwing shift would have an impact, largely positive, for India.


There is no doubt Obama and much of his party desperately wants to pull US troops out of Afghanistan. The Republicans are equally vehement that the US must stay and fight. It has been the rightwing that has steadfastly supported the "surge" strategy in Afghanistan and ensured the war gets funding.

Now that the House of Representatives, the sole body that constitutionally can raise taxes, is Republican, the ability of the White House to push the withdrawal agenda is all that more constrained. Obama, in effect, would have to take on Bob Gates, his Republican defence secretary, General David Petraeus, his Afghan war commander and a registered Republican, and his entire lower house if he insisted on a troop withdrawal that the right did not approve of.

This may be an area where compromise is not possible. Members of Obama's circle like Vice-President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon are determined to begin pulling out US troops from the summer of next year. "They believe it is necessary to mobilise the Democratic base in anti-war states like California," says an ex-state department official close to the Democratic Party. This could be the definitive foreign policy battle next year. And one where New Delhi's instincts will be strongly in favour of the Republicans.

A key signal will be whom Obama selects to replace Gates, slated to retire in a few months.

Climate Change

Here's a reminder of the state of play on this subject. The Obama administration wants countries such as India and China to accept carbon emission caps. The latter are saying the US must impose such a cap on itself before they are prepared to consider such action.

Obama was already having difficulty getting a domestic cap policy in place given the economic recession. Now such a policy is almost impossible. It is not merely that energy players are big Republican supporters. Groups such as the extreme right Tea Party movement believe climate change is voodoo science. Their candidates campaigned on a promise to investigate climate change fraud and worse.

Says a Democratic Party lobbyist in Washington, "Many Democrats from coal-mining states were already distancing themselves from Obama's policy. Now the House will fight to ensure even administrative regulations on carbon pollution will are slowed down and not implemented."

Obama will continue to maintain high-flowing rhetoric on the climate. And he will push technology and investment agreements in clean energy with countries such as India. But it will be compensation for what he can't do.


The Democrats have noticed raising the outsourcing bogey didn't get them much traction during this election. But with joblessness being the number one electoral issue, it will be impossible for them to keep raising it — and even for a few Republicans to give it a shot.

However, there can be no doubt that Republicans, reflecting their free trade and corporate instincts, are less hassled about outsourcing than the Democrats. It will never disappear, but one should expect it to assume a far lower profile. With one exception: studies show 70% of outsourcing job loss in the US is from manufacturing moving to China. Bashing Beijing is popular with both left and right in the US. Expect that to increase.

Obama officials stress that Indians should see what their President does, not what he says. Other than a transient worker visa hike, he has done nothing. But they acknowledge the symbolism has been poor. "You won't hear that phrase again," said a senior state department official when asked about the President's love for the phrase "Buffalo to Bangalore".

Nuclear Stuff

The Obama administration had to fight off the nuclear nonproliferation hawks in its own ranks to be able to continue the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.

The Democrats have always felt George W Bush should have tied India to a nuclear test ban and a fissile material freeze. Bush aides found that laughable. "We have no problems if India wants to build more nuclear missiles. We want you to be strong," one said.

Obama had been trying to get moderate Republicans to support the US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty before he could move on to pressuring India and others to do the same. After this election it is probably safe to say the CTBT is, once again, in political oblivion.

In theory, Obama could declare war on the Republicans and wage legislative war with them. This would effectively paralyse Washington. This is the zero option. But it would be a huge gamble. That would mean expecting voters to blame the opposition for the resulting years of do-nothing. Voters, however, tend to blame the Presidents, not faceless legislatures, for such crises. And it's not clear if a US on life support can absorb a Beltway slugfest.

What will matter the most, however, is that Obama has already fixed his gaze on his own re-election two years hence. One of his campaign aides said, "We officially begin the re-election in February with an event in Chicago." Effectively, it began even before the mid-term results were out.

Obama is already wondering how he can reach out to the Indian-American community and their money. He is probably also weighing whether, if a Republican-dominated Congress is difficult to work with, he should seek solace and political success in foreign policy. And one of the few areas he and the Republicans agree on in foreign policy is the Bush legacy of ties with India.