The US president has one year left in which to save his international policy.
It is a widely believed that American presidents who do not stand for another term are reduced to the status of lame duck, confined to functions in which they merely represent a power that they no longer have the legitimacy to exercise. However, this preconception appears to be wrong. During the final year of his presidency, Ronald Reagan signed the free trade agreement with Canada and achieved the ratification of the treaty that eliminated intermediate-range nuclear weapons; Bill Clinton launched two major programs for the preservation of natural environments and for the fight against drugs, as well as giving China the status of most-favored nation and significantly opening trade with Africa; George W. Bush committed to withdrawal from Iraq and to the most important support program for the economy since the New Deal, in order to tackle the 2008 crash.
The first priority of Barack Obama will be to maintain the remarkable economic recovery that he has supported if not always directed. His election at the end of 2008 took place in the shadow of the worst crash since October 1929 and the threat of massive deflation. Eight years on, the USA has got back to a yearly growth rate of 2.7%. Full employment has returned with an unemployment rate cut back from 10% to 5% since 2009 and the creation of 2.7 million jobs in 2015. Salaries have increased by 2.5% per year and inflation has been put into check. The budget deficit has been reduced from 10 to 2.5% of the GDP.
US emergence from the crisis owes much to the highly expansionist monetary policy of the Fed, to the development of unconventional hydrocarbons which have put the USA back at the head of world oil producers, and to its unchallenged leadership in information technology and life sciences. It is now threatened by a slow-down in the world economy, originating in China and developing countries, which weighs heavily on industry and exports because of the collapse of oil prices and the rise in interest rates which may trigger the bursting of speculative bubbles on stock markets and on high-yield bonds. The resilience of the US economy will ultimately depend on the dynamism of domestic demand, thus on a less unequal distribution of the fruits of recovery.
The blunt hostility of Congress will undoubtedly stop Barack Obama from committing to important reforms in domestic policy. In the areas of immigration and the environment, he will only be able to govern by decree – as demonstrated recently in the case of gun control – which puts a severe limit on what he can do, multiplies the probablility of appeal and deeply divides opinion.
On the other hand, his ability to take initiatives in the fields of diplomacy and strategy remains intact. There is no doubt that he will use 2016 to capitalise on his successes and attempt to attenuate his failures.
To his credit, there are four major agreements which are to be implemented: the Treaty of Vienna should lead to the effective reinstatement of Iran on the world stage so as to rebalance relations with Saudi Arabia; normalisation with Cuba makes it possible to envision a new era of relations between the two Americas; the ratification of the TPP free trade agreement aims to materialise the shift towards Asia with the objective of stemming the rising power of China; finally, the implementation of commitments undertaken during COP21 aims to speed up the environmental transition of the US economy. If all these become definitive, they will have a long-term effect on the economic and geopolitical balance of the planet.
At the same time, Barack Obama will seek to erase the weakest and most disquieting aspect of his presidency – security. The unilateral withdrawal of the USA has in fact opened up vast spaces which have been occupied by Islamic State and by the Chinese, Russian, Iranian and Turkish empires. The strategic threats posed by the worldwide jihad initiated by Islamic State, and the renewal of imperialism, have been significantly underestimated. US strategic credibility has been undermined, notably by US procrastination in the Syrian war and its seriously-weakened traditional alliances in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Therefore, Barack Obama has no choice but to intensify the war against Islamic State by attempting to bring together the widest possible coalition around a global strategy that is military, economic, financial and cybernetic. WIth regard to Russia, the only way out is to negotiate its commitment to respect the security of Europe – including the Ukraine – in return for the lifting of international sanctions. However, it is highly improbable that Vladimir Putin will agree to discuss this with Barack Obama.
Ultimately, the best way for Barack Obama to secure the achievements of his presidency and to confound his critics, is to contribute to the election of Hillary Clinton to the presidency. And the best way of supporting Hillary Clinton is to take action and put the full weight of his leadership of the USA behind the fight against wars of religion, nationalist fervour, economic instability and explosions of populism.