[Viewpoint] U.S. mid-term elections and us

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[Viewpoint] U.S. mid-term elections and us

Americans came back from a three-day holiday the week of September 7 to see new public opinion poll numbers from most of the news media confirming that the Democrats will take a major hit in mid-term Congressional elections in November.

The general favorability rating for Republicans and Democrats is now roughly even after several years in which the Democrats had a significant lead, and polls in specific House and Senate races have influential political analysts predicting the Republicans will take the House of Representatives and could take the Senate as well.

Politics is always a guessing game, but by some calculations these are the most dismal polls for an incumbent party before a mid-term election in over fifty years.

This is not an election about U.S.-Korea relations or even foreign policy, of course. The big issues are a lack of new U.S. jobs and concern that the Federal Government has grown too large and fiscally irresponsible under Barack Obama’s administration. (Many also blame the final Bush years for this as well, but he is not running this time).

That said, a change of leadership in the House and maybe the Senate could have some impact on U.S.-Korea relations.

One potentially positive impact could be on the U.S.-Korea FTA (Korus). When President Obama announced that he wanted to pass Korus by the end of the year, over 100 Democratic members of Congress sent him a letter expressing their opposition to the FTA.

Republicans in the House are much more supportive of free trade than Democrats, and Obama could have the numbers to pass Korus if he were willing to work with a new Republican majority. (Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has to approve all commercial treaties).

There is a precedent for this. Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992 under the slogan, “It’s the economy stupid,” and initially pushed more protectionist and interventionist economic policies after he was elected. When the Republicans took the House in November 1994, they cut spending for Clinton’s industrial policy initiatives and forced a rethink about economic strategy in the White House.

Clinton ended up advancing the North America Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which had been negotiated by the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush, and he did so by reaching across the aisle and working with Republicans over some strong objections within his own caucus.

There is some speculation that Obama may do the same thing this time. He has already highlighted trade promotion as one way to create new jobs and his political advisors will be looking for some area where they can make progress with an opposition-controlled Congress.

There are some reasons why it might not happen that way, however. For one thing, Clinton had been governor of a conservative Southern state and had to learn to work with Republicans in the state legislature to get things done. Obama comes from the Democratic Party stronghold of Chicago and the Illinois State legislature, where he had less need to work with Republicans and may not know how.

There is also a question whether Republicans will cooperate, even if they do support Korus. With a big victory against the Democrats based on opposition and obstruction, the Republican leadership may be tempted to continue hampering the President’s agenda - even areas they agree with - to weaken him before the 2012 presidential election. I tend to think bipartisan cooperation on Korus is more likely than not after November, but it is not a certainty.

The second area of impact could be on North Korea policy. In general, the Obama administration has maintained a firm stance toward North Korea. The President appears open to contact with the North, but not before North-South dialogue resumes and not if it means unilaterally relaxing the sanctions and defensive measures taken since the North’s nuclear tests and sinking of the Cheonan. A Republic majority in the House will only reinforce this harder line. Members like Congressman Ed Royce of California in the House and John McCain in the Senate will scrutinize the administration’s negotiating strategy toward Pyongyang and criticize any sign that the administration is either moving too fast for Seoul or relaxing defensive measures. With control of the House and/or the Senate, the Republicans will be able to call hearings and force the State Department to explain what it’s doing.

The impact of opposition control of the Congress cannot be overemphasized. The senior foreign affairs officials in the Bush administration might have spent 10-20 percent of their time dealing with Congress until the Democrats took control in the 2006 elections and then the administration was forced to spend about 40 percent of their time dealing with hostile questions and committee hearings.

That narrowed the bandwidth of the administration on foreign policy, and may have contributed to the dramatic changes in policy toward North Korea and the Middle East in the last two years, as the Bush administration triaged foreign policy priorities to focus on the few things it thought it had to do.

Finally, there is considerable debate about whether a Republican victory in the mid-term elections helps or hurts President Obama’s chances for re-election in 2012. I was recently at a bipartisan dinner of senior Republican and Democratic political advisors and the question was asked whether a Republican victory helps or hurts Obama in 2012.

Interestingly, the Republicans thought a successful outcome for them in the mid-term would hurt their chances in 2012 because it would force Obama to move to the center and away from his liberal base, which would make him more electable in a general election.

Democrats at the table said the opposite - that a Republican victory would so wound Obama that he would not get anything done and would pay the price at the polls in 2012.

As they say in politics, one step ahead is darkness.

*The writer is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

By Michael Green
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