[Viewpoint] U.S. midterm elections and Korea

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[Viewpoint] U.S. midterm elections and Korea

American voters are growing restless and threatening to unseat the Democratic majority now in power in the House of Representatives and the Senate through the November congressional election. While much can still change before November, a number of factors point to major losses for the Democrats. Korea should consider the potential impact of the election on our bilateral relationship with the U.S. and, more specifically, prospects for the Korus free trade agreement.

A growing tide of American voters is incensed at continuing U.S. economic malaise, and is starting to blame the Democrats in power. Unemployment remains near 10 percent, and fears of a “double-dip” recession persist.

Many voters are also upset about the financial crisis and its continuing effects, including reduced retirement savings and home values, which undermine the most significant assets of many Americans. In addition, many voters are distressed by high levels of government debt and spending, including the money spent on the much-criticized Wall Street bailouts, which they believe are hampering economic recovery.

Beyond these economic difficulties, Democrats also face a discouraging political landscape. Voter turnout is the key to success in the midterm elections.

However, many Democratic voters are disappointed with President Barack Obama for having reneged on key campaign promises, such as ending the war in Afghanistan and improving the ability of labor unions to organize workers, and thus are not as energized as they were during his momentous presidential campaign. Also, independents, a crucial voting bloc, are pulling away from the Democrats.

Finally, there’s a strong current of anti-incumbent sentiment, and this will hurt Democrats more than Republicans as Democrats substantially outnumber Republicans in Congress. In the House of Representatives, in which every seat is up for re-election, Democrats now hold 77 more seats than Republicans.

For these reasons, it is a virtual certainty that Democrats will lose many seats in Congress in November. How many seats Democrats will actually lose will depend in large part on Obama’s management of the economy as well as his leadership in two enormous ongoing challenges, the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the perilous war in Afghanistan. Polls, however, show diminishing confidence among voters in the president’s competency to manage these overlapping crises, boding poorly for the Democrats. Even if Democrats manage to hang on to their majorities in both houses of Congress, their position will be weakened.

How will this impact the Korea-U.S. relationship? Fortunately, the military and security alliance is strong, and U.S. support for Korea in the face of an unpredictable North Korean threat is unwavering. The strong relationship is now buttressed by increasing Korea-U.S. cooperation on a range of global issues - such as management of the financial crisis, nuclear nonproliferation and climate change - as well as by a strong personal bond between presidents Lee Myung-bak and Obama. Thus, no matter how the midterm election plays out, the bilateral relationship will remain sturdy.

In fact, the overall working relationship could be enhanced as Republicans are generally more hawkish than Democrats on security matters and also share certain conservative values with President Lee’s administration.

Similarly, with respect to Korus, the inevitable Republican advance in November should mean an improvement in Korus’ chances for passage. Many Republican members of Congress are free-traders and support Korus.

Although Korus may turn into a “political football” if an emboldened Republican Party seeks to deny Obama a bipartisan plan for ratification, an expanded Republican presence on Capitol Hill is, on balance, helpful for passage.

President Obama has now also provided new momentum for Korus through his announcement at the Toronto G-20 Summit that he is committed to securing passage soon after the elections. Many U.S. observers were surprised that Korea could obtain such a commitment from Obama given the opposition to Korus within Obama’s own party and during a time of sustained economic malaise, and they credit Lee’s diplomatic acumen.

Even under these improved conditions for Korus, obstacles to passage remain. Some moderate congressional Democrats who now support Korus are likely to lose their seats in November. Also, strong opposition to Korus from pro-labor union Democrats is certain to persist, and may well stiffen further, making it difficult for Obama to rebuff this key part of the Democratic base.

Further, the political window for Korus to pass will be a small one - beginning after the midterm election and ending during mid-2011, when attention begins to turn to the next presidential election in 2012. If Korus does not pass during this window of opportunity, it could be eclipsed by other U.S. trade initiatives focused on Asia, in particular the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed FTA spanning the Pacific Rim. Thus, Korea should focus its maximum efforts on the upcoming opportunity for getting Korus passed.

As Korea knows, the obstacles to Korus in the U.S. are mostly political, and this reality unfortunately requires Obama to obtain some changes to the agreement before he can present it to Congress for ratification. Obama has now declared that he is committed to finding a path to ratification for Korus. But to make this feasible, Korea needs to help Obama help Korea by working to find mutually agreeable revisions that will allow him to submit Korus for passage as soon as the political window opens after the November election. This effort will require pragmatism, leadership and political courage on the part of both presidents Lee and Obama.

*The writer is a senior partner at the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington, D.C.Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Suk-han
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