[Viewpoint] A wounded Obama

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[Viewpoint] A wounded Obama

President Barack Obama prided himself on being America’s first president with Asia-Pacific connections in his life. He openly expressed fondness for Korea more than any other American president. Bilateral ties are tighter than ever. He recommended that educators look to Korea for tips and he is a fan of kimchi. His Korean friends here are sorry to see their favorite American president shunned at home in this week’s midterm elections.

On Tuesday, the Republicans toppled Democratic control of the House of Representatives, state legislatures and governorships, reflecting public angst over the frustratingly slow pace of recovery in employment and in the economy.

Then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton beat incumbent George H.W. Bush in 1992 even though the sitting president enjoyed high popularity following the Gulf War. Bush lost to Clinton largely because the country was mired in a recession. Clinton’s campaign phrase - “It’s the economy, stupid!” - took the words out of the mouths of everyday American voters muddling through economic hardship.

This time around, the Republicans flung that slogan back in the Democrats’ faces. Voters who were enthralled by the intelligent, suave and young Obama and his “Change We Need” slogan have turned against their first African-American president.

Obama and his Democratic government may somewhat resent the cold shoulder from the public considering what they started out with: a financial mess from the Bush era.

The Obama administration pumped in $1.5 trillion to jump-start the economy. Yet the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at nearly 10 percent. The real estate market remains in the doldrums. Officials say the worst is over, but voters can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel or afford to appreciate any of Obama’s accomplishments over the last two years.

The hard-right Tea Party got lots of media coverage by attacking the Keynesian approach of Obama’s administration and labeled it a tax-squandering, socialist government to cajole voters to turn against Obama. Meanwhile, liberal Democrats criticized Obama for backtracking on reforms and compromising too much.

They had expected Franklin Roosevelt and were disappointed that he was not him. Moderates were equally dissatisfied with the lack of inspiration and lyricism Obama had displayed during the presidential campaign.

Obama, however, made all the right moves in trying to salvage the economy. He erred by sitting self-absorbedly on his high horse and failing to sell his reforms - i.e. the health care system overhaul - to the people as well as to Republican congressmen, creating a bumper year for the extreme Tea Party movement.

Even Obama’s greatest fans criticized him for obsessing over health care reform when the economy called for other priorities. Other supporters concluded that Obama may have earned high marks in the pursuit of policy, but flunked in basic politics.

Whipped by cries for retreat, the president has crossed the Rubicon. Humbly taking the blame for the Democrats’ “shellacking,” he promised to negotiate tax cuts and changes to the health care law with the Republican-dominated House and to address the fiscal deficit. His experiment with Main Street-first economic policy will flounder if the Tea Party movement takes America back to the conservative days of Reaganomics in the 1980s.

A war awaits Obama on the other side of the Rubicon. He must confront or work with the Republicans, and either way he will likely be engrossed with domestic problems. Foreign policies on North Korea, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan may come second.

Republicans winning control of the House may be good news for the free trade agreement with Korea. But Republicans loathe rogue states like North Korea. They may slow or block progress if a breakthrough is made in denuclearization talks with North Korea and an economic aid package needs stamping by the Congress, as they did after the Geneva Agreed Framework in 1994.

The times call for strong leadership from the American president amid China’s ascent, territorial disputes in East Asia and insecurity in North Korea.

President Bill Clinton came out stronger after his party’s defeat in midterm elections in 1994 by realigning his camp, reasserting his commitment to moderate policies and pursuing necessary measures through persuasion and negotiation with Republicans.

The Republicans, despite their victory, are in for potential strife between the hard-right Tea Partiers and moderates. Obama should learn from Clinton and capitalize on his opposition’s weaknesses to turn the tide to his favor so he can exercise full leadership on the East Asia front and other foreign affairs matters.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Young-hie
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