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Situation Assessment 25 November, 2012

The US Presidential Elections: What happened? What comes next?

Osama Abu Irshaid

Osama Abu Irshaid is a Jordanian academic, lecturer and writer of Palestinian descent who resides in Washington, DC . He gained his PhD at the UK’s Loughborough University, after having completed an MA at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.
Dr Abu Irshaid is the founder and Editor in Chief of the US-based, Arabic language Al Meezan newspaper. He is the author of several different papers in both Arabic and English, including (together with Paul Scham) “Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility” published by the United States Institute of Peace. Dr Abu Irshaid also frequently appears as a commentator on a number of Arab satellite television stations.

The results of the US Presidential elections held on November 6 came as a surprise to some observers, though not to others. Since the Second World War, no incumbent US president was re-elected at a time when the unemployment rate surpassed 7.1%; in President Obama's case, however, the nation-wide unemployment rate was 7.9% on the eve of his re-election. Likewise, public approval ratings of Obama's policies before the elections were below 50%, long regarded as a kind of "magic threshold" an incumbent president needs to surpass to be brought back into office. Additionally, multiple public opinion polls highlighted two issues that were worrying for Obama, but encouraging for his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. 

Firstly, some of these opinion polls showed that the two contenders were hypercompetitive-with the difference in support between Romney and Obama being within the margin of error for the poll. Second, some opinion polls demonstrated that Obama's electoral support base among liberals, the youth, and ethnic minorities-particularly Latino- and African-Americans-did not have the same enthusiasm for the president as they did in 2008. At that time, Obama easily defeated Senator John McCain.

Based on all of this, Romney's campaign believed they would comfortably succeed in the elections, and that this success would not be confined to states that were likely to vote for him anyway, as well as the swing states-specifically Ohio and Florida. They also predicted that Romney would win states, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, both of which overwhelmingly represent the Democrats.

The Victory

Though the above describes how the election results were a surprise, they would not have been a total surprise to those who turned their attention to other factors that make the outcome seem reasonable. There were a number of factors that favored Obama over Romney, including Romney's vacillating positions going from moderate, during his time as governor of the liberal state of Massachusetts (2003-2007), to more right-wing in a bid to secure the backing of the far right of the Republican party  (Grand Old Party, GOP) during the presidential primaries. After having secured the primary, Romney was faced with the new challenge of re-gaining the center ground in order to win the independent votes. His flip-flopping cost him the election. Romney changed his opinions to suit his interests, thus making it difficult to identify the principles he truly believed in. While this allowed him to mobilize some of those in his presumed voter base in the far right, he alienated independent voters and those who consider themselves "moderates".

Democrats were able to make use of this fact to discredit Romney, thereby favoring their own party. They also leaned on a number of leaked comments made by the Republican candidate, such as his claim that 47% of the American population was dependent on the government for their livelihood. Romney's previous opposition to the bailout of the automotive industries, on which states like Michigan and Ohio rely, cost him the electoral support of Ohio, one of the swing states. These were some of the factors in Obama's favor, but the situation is more complicated still considering the demographic changes in the United States,  as well as the ideology and identity of the Republican Party.

Simply put, the Republican Party appears at present-especially given the rise of the far right within it-to be gradually turning into the party of White America, a particularly elderly, white America. In fact, the GOP is at risk of becoming the "Party of the South" if it cannot achieve an internal compromise that would allow it to attract ethnic minorities by dispelling the belief that it is opposed to them. To exemplify these dynamics, statistics show that white Americans made up 72% of the voters in the last election, 2% lower in than in the 2008 presidential elections. This figure is projected to fall by another 2% in the next presidential elections, in 2016. Within this group of white voters, only 39% voted for Obama compared to 59% who voted for Romney. Thus, Obama's electoral victory was down to the votes cast by black and Latino voters. Taking into consideration that 13% of the electorate was African-American, 90% of whom voted for Obama, and 10% Latino, of which 71% voted for Obama, the scale of changes, clearly in Obama's favor, in the composition of the US population becomes apparent.

However, the GOP's problems do not lie exclusively with the sizeable change in US demographics; rather, they also include an ideological dilemma, partly their non-cordial relations with ethnic minorities, and in part their stances on immigration law. Another aspect of their problems is reflected in their failure to attract women and young voters. Obama's lead in the 18 to 29 year old age group was greater than 20 percentage points, and 18% among female voters, who were anxious of losing reproductive rights in the event of a Republican victory, for example. In other words, these figures demonstrate again how the Republican Party is the party of old, white men.

These latest elections also demonstrated that a majority of Americans are not opposed to an increased role for the federal government in the administration of economic affairs, including the provision of a social safety net.

Challenges of a Second Obama Presidency

While US voters expressed their confidence in President Obama, giving him another four years in the White House, this does not mean that the obstacles in his path have been completely removed. In fact, he faces unprecedented domestic and foreign challenges.

Domestic Challenges 

The primary, pressing burden for the Obama Administration is the impending "fiscal cliff". Should members of Congress-from both main parties- be unable to reach an agreement regarding tax breaks for middle-class Americans and cutbacks in the US federal budget by the end of this year, it is likely that the rate of taxation will drastically increase. This would result in automatic reductions from important defense and social welfare programs, threatening to push the US economy into a renewed recession.

The unemployment rate is another challenge for Obama's Administration since the president must reduce it from 7.9% to at least 5.2%. Public indebtedness, which is coming close to 17 trillion dollars, and the government's annual budget deficit also remain problematic. There are further challenges related to tax reform, immigration law, and Obama's healthcare package, which has a number of loopholes and deficiencies the president needs to address.

Dealing with these challenges will not be easy for the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party since Republicans control the House of Representatives and Democrats lack a controlling majority in the Senate. If Democrats held 60 of the 100 seats, instead of the 55 they can depend on,[1] they would have been able to prevent Republican filibustering.

Foreign Challenges

The Obama Administration faces many challenges abroad, coinciding with the changes he will make to his cabinet and group of advisors in the US National Security Council. It is now confirmed that both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will not be present in the second Obama Administration. In addition, the sexual scandal involving General David Petraeus, who was Director of the CIA, added another burden as the president must now find a replacement.

Internationally, Obama is currently facing a number of issues. In South East Asia, the ascent of China, and the threat this poses to US influence in that region, creates difficulties for President Obama. He had made this point clear, as did the outgoing foreign and defense secretaries, both of whom insisted that they would not tolerate the reduction of American influence as it is an area crucial to US security and national interests. American intransigence on this point, though, must be delicately balanced, particularly given the fact that China is the US's  largest creditor, making it vitally important to the American economy.

Further to this, Putin's Russia has brought about yet another challenge, with its ambitions to regain the past glories of the Soviet Union. Here, Syria stands out as one of the clearest examples of where the US and Russia are locked into conflict. Obama must also successfully address the European financial crisis or be faced with the prospect of a new recession. Of course, there is the question of US withdrawal from Afghanistan, scheduled to take place at the end of 2014, which poses the risk of resuming an all-out war between the Taliban and the present US-allied regime.

Middle East Challenges

The Middle Eastern region poses great challenges for Obama. At its core is the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process. During Obama's first term in office, his administration failed to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into freezing settlement activity, which the Palestinians had laid down as a precondition to returning to the negotiations table. As a result of Netanyahu's intransigence, Obama was unable to fulfill his promise made in his June 2009 speech in Cairo to push both parties into an agreement that would give rise to a Palestinian state.

Many analysts have indicated that Obama does not want to stain his presidency with another failure regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as happened with some of his predecessors-Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000 and George W Bush at Annapolis in 2007. It appears then that the second Obama Administration will lean towards disengagement from this issue, and will more likely focus on the management of the conflict, as well as controlling its parameters and extent. The administration also needs to ensure that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not explode and get out of control. They will need to secure small achievements in the peace process without touching the complicated issues, such as Palestinian refugees (and their right of return) and the status of Jerusalem. It is , however, important to remember that the Palestinian cause always finds a way of imposing itself on all agendas, regionally and in the wider world.

With regards to the Syrian conflict, it should be noted that while the US president has repeatedly called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, the American government has not followed this with military support for the revolutionaries in Syria, or even the imposition of a no-fly zone (as in the Libyan case). Previously, the US explained its policies by noting the lack of unity among forces within the Syrian opposition, as well as its fear of the "jihadist" identity of some elements in the armed revolution. In the same vein, the US government, through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recently exerted pressure on both the domestic and foreign-based Syrian opposition movements in order to unify them. These efforts paid off with in the formation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as announced in Doha on November 14, 2012. Obama has recognized this group as a legitimate representative (although not exclusively the legitimate representative) of the "aspirations of the Syrian people".[2]

Nonetheless, the US remains hesitant in dealing with the Syrian situation. One thing it affirms, however, is that-up to the present moment-the US has remained opposed to providing heavy armaments to the revolutionaries on the grounds that it is ignorant of their true background. This ambivalence appears to be tied to Israeli-American fears about the shape a post-Assad Syria will take. They do not want to hurry any changes in Syria before they can be assured of what Syria will look like after al-Assad's fall.

The US's enthusiasm for the Arab revolutions overall appears to have dimmed somewhat. At one level, this is because the Americans have overcome the shock. In addition, they would like to have a greater role in dictating the outcomes of the revolutions, one that is more pronounced than the role they played in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt,  and Libya. The US is expected to attempt containing some of the changes in some of the countries of the Arab Spring, without conflicting with them. In other words, the US's administration will seek to ensure that the changes coming about in the Arab Spring countries do not give rise to regimes opposed to the US or that seek to fundamentally change the rules of the game in relationship to the Israelis (This is particularly true in the case of Egypt.).

Finally, the complex and sensitive issue of the Iranian nuclear program will remain one of the most high-profile foreign challenges for Obama during his second term. During the previous four years, the Obama Administration has resisted Israeli pressures to carry out a militarily strike against Iran, preferring to impose tight economic and financial sanctions instead. The administration also believes that these sanctions have begun to have an effect, and, as a result, has prevented the Israelis from carrying out a unilateral aerial bombardment of Iranian nuclear installations.

Obama's Administration is predicted to continue the same policies it has been following for the last four years: continuously tightening the sanctions placed on Iran without obstructing the chances of any diplomatic solution (assuming such exist). Nonetheless, a variety of possible military options remain on the table, particularly should US intelligence assessments indicate that Iran is on the cusp of joining the nuclear club. Obama's main challenge  on this issue, however, is to prevent Netanyahu from attacking Iran in the event that the latter secures a second term in office as prime minister in the upcoming Israeli elections in early 2013.


Despite the fact that the US remains the primary global power, the challenges it faces domestically and abroad could limit its capacity to act effectively on many foreign issues. This is particularly true when those foreign issues require military intervention, such as is the case with Iran. The last thing Obama wants is to start a new war (not to discount the possibility of such an occurrence), which would further cripple an already fragile US economy. Importantly, it was Obama who declared in his 2012 victory speech that America's "decade of war is ending"[3].


[1] Two of the seats are taken by Independents, who caucus with the Democrats.

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20307668.

[3] See here for the full text: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/07/barack-obama-speech-full-text.

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