Series of interviews: Obama after Midterm Elections (Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue)

Michael Shifter

Michael Shifter

1.      What are the implications of the electoral results in the U.S. for the political agenda of President Obama, for instance, the TPP, the immigration reform, etc.?

Even if the Democrats had maintained control of the Senate, the last two years of President Obama’s term would not have been easy. But with such significant Republican gains – including in traditionally Democratic states – and its dominance now in both houses of Congress, Obama’s agenda will be particularly complicated.   The Republicans will be able to hold up virtually all appointments to senior government positions, call hearings or undertake investigations on whatever issue they chose, and refuse to authorize expenditures and appropriate funds on programs that are important for the White House.   That is not exactly a recipe for harmony and smooth, functional governing.

At the same time, the Republicans know they have to be careful.  If they are seen as obstructionist, the party could lose support and risk winning the big prize – the White House in 2016.   That is why Republican leaders have declared they would not resort to such extreme tactics as shutting down the government or defaulting on US debt payments.  Whether the leadership can keep more hard line elements of the party under control will be critical.

Many Latinos and progressive Democrats have applauded Obama’s bold executive decisions on immigration.   The president was understandably frustrated by inaction in the House on such a central issue, so he took the initiative.  It will take some time to determine to what extent Obama’s decisions will be implemented and effectively reach the number of people they are intended to benefit.   It is also unclear how the Republicans will respond.   It seems doubtful that, whatever the merits of Obama’s decisions, his executive actions will strengthen goodwill with Republicans.  As a result, the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that is needed seems unlikely in the next few years.

To be sure, the Republican-controlled Senate will be more inclined to approve fast track negotiating authority than the Democratic-led predecessor.  This may help accelerate the final stage of negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership.   But for the US, the TPP is mainly about Asia.  It will benefit a few Latin American countries, and perhaps cause problems for others, but it will unlikely be a major factor in US-Latin American relations.

A number of analysts believe, and hope, that President Obama will also exercise his authority to pursue a serious diplomatic initiative on US relations with Cuba.  Many argue that this would be an appealing legacy for the president in this hemisphere.   While such an effort is possible, there is little indication that this issue is a priority for the administration.  For the moment, it is consumed by other critical foreign and domestic questions.

2.      How could the Republican Party capitalize its electoral success? What impact could this have in the political context in the U.S.?

The Republican Party would be wise to take advantage of its recent electoral success by demonstrating that it can pass sound legislation and actually govern.   There are a number of issues, including tax reform, infrastructure and energy, that the party should focus on.   Party leaders will have to be careful, however, to maintain unity in light of sharp divisions, including the Tea Party faction that is not eager for such an accommodating approach.

3.      What effects could the Republican victory in the last election have in the next presidential election in the U.S.?

After the last election, the Republicans seem to be grooming more viable candidates for the presidency than the Democrats.    Hillary Clinton is the presumed Democratic nominee, and formidable candidate, while the Republican field is wide open, with some new, more moderate faces emerging from the last election.    The key question is whether the party will interpret its latest victory as vindication of the Tea Party or as evidence that the formula for success is moving to the center and being willing to reach agreements with Democrats.

4.      What is your perspective on the executive order on immigration recently announced by President Obama? Do you anticipate a significant impact such as that of the immigration reform enacted by President Reagan?

The executive order on immigration is a welcome step towards ending the unfair, even abusive, treatment of undocumented Latino migrants and their families.   The orders are aimed at reaching a significant number of people, almost half of the 11 million undocumented migrants.  But no one claims that the decisions come close to solving the US’s broken immigration system.  They reach less than a half of total undocumented migrants, offer no path to citizenship and full equality, and can easily be reversed by Obama’s successor.  Further, a great deal remains unknown, such as whether the procedures will be too bureaucratic and whether Latinos might have to face more invective and insults from reform opponents.  The longer term impact of the President’s order hinges to a great degree on the dynamics set in motion by the Republican reaction.

5.      How will the executive order on immigration enacted by President Obama impact the U.S. relations with Latin America, especially Mexico?

Although there is no sign that President Obama’s immigration order was motivated at all by a desire to improve US relations with Latin America, the effect is likely to be very positive.   Responses from Latin Americans leaders, including Pena Nieto, have been highly favorable.   The US’s dysfunctional and inhumane immigration system has been a source of friction and irritation between Washington and Latin American capitals – and not just Mexico City and San Salvador, but also Bogota, Lima, Quito and even Montevideo.   The real test, however, will be how the announced changes actually work in practice.   But this is undoubtedly a constructive step in relations between the US and Latin America and the Caribbean.

6.      Do you believe that the lawsuit that some members of the opposition plan to interpose against President Obama is well founded? If so, what impact will it have?

The lawsuit’s chief purpose appears to be for the Republicans to show that they are using all tools available to oppose Obama. It is unlikely that the courts will be interested in mediating disputes between the Congress and the President.   Eventually, Republicans will realize that Obama is not as relevant and they will need to focus on the likely Democratic nominee in 2016, Hillary Clinton.

7.      Given the current conditions, what is your forecast for what is left of the Obama administration? Do you believe that the President will achieve his main campaign promises?

It is hard to be optimistic about how much the Obama administration will realistically be able to accomplish in its remaining two years.   The Republicans are stronger than ever and, although there are some incentives to cooperate with the President, they are unlikely to do so.   The pressure from factions within the party will be too strong.  Obama, moreover, does not have public opinion on his side – many of his core constituencies are disappointed and expected more from his administration.   Although he has more room to maneuver in foreign policy, the global geopolitical challenges are formidable and complex.  There are no easy wins in sight.

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