Weakened by Midterms at Home, Obama Faces Credibility Gap Abroad

Weakened by Midterms at Home, Obama Faces Credibility Gap Abroad
U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast at a lunch banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 12, 2014 (AP photo by Greg Baker).

Inside the United States, supporters of President Barack Obama have all sorts of explanations for the defeat handed the Democratic Party in last week’s midterm elections, which not only increased the Republican majority in the House of Representatives but also gave the GOP control of the Senate. Democrats’ failure to mobilize their traditional voters to turn out at the polls; accusations of voter-suppression techniques, which disproportionally impact those more likely to cast ballots for the Democratic Party; and the Republicans’ successful efforts at playing up anxieties about the economy, Ebola and the so-called Islamic State (IS) have all been put forward to explain the disappointing electoral results and to try to make the case that the president still enjoys a mandate from the American people to govern. Unfortunately for the Obama administration, these narratives carry little traction outside the U.S., where the results are being interpreted, from Belfast to Vladivostok and from Rio de Janeiro to Beijing, as a rejection of Obama’s leadership and of his signature policy initiatives.

Even worse for the president, the timing of two major summits—the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Beijing, followed by the conclave of the Group of 20 (G-20) in Brisbane, Australia—comes on the heels of this apparent repudiation at the hands of the American electorate. Instead of traveling overseas with a reinvigorated mandate, which would clear away the deadlock that has crippled U.S. policymaking, Obama must now reassure partners and make clear to rivals that he will not be an ineffective, lame-duck president. This is especially important given the paralyzing government shutdown in 2013 that prevented Obama from attending the previous APEC meeting, allowing Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin to dominate the agenda.

In contrast, Xi has had a remarkably successful year, asserting his dominance over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparatus; launching a new anti-corruption campaign that has eliminated possible rivals and helped to legitimize his vision for China’s future; and bringing the military and security services under much closer supervision and control. The CCP’s recently concluded Fourth Plenum signaled Xi’s complete ascendancy in Chinese politics—a victory that cannot help but be contrasted with Obama’s weakened political status.

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