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Growing clout of non-whites in US: Obama faces serious challenges in new setting
Monish Tourangbam
28 November 2012

The US Presidential race this year turned out to be an edge-of-the-seat experience with more or less equal chances for both candidates till the very last hours. The cut-throat competition between the incumbent President Barack Obama and the Republican challenger Mitt Romney made the journey to the polling day a bitter and exhausting experience. But, in the end, Obama's sustained lead in the electoral college served him well and won him back the White House with a clear majority. Performing beyond expectations, Obama secured victories in eight of the nine swing states - Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada - losing only in North Carolina.

As the polling figures came out, it became obvious that Obama's zone of supporters had stood behind him. Though Obama got lesser popular votes compared to 2008, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, women and young voters, this time too, invested enough belief in the first African-American president to steer the country to economic recovery.

Clearly, America is undergoing a significant demographic change with an increasing non-White population that is slowly altering polling statistics in the country. President Barack Obama himself symbolises this changing complexion of the United States. The political ascendancy of the minorities in the United States is being significantly felt for the first time and, as America becomes "less White", political leaders and party campaigns will increasingly depend on the so-called "rainbow-coalition" of diverse voters.

The American people have given Obama an enviable yet daunting task of overcoming many domestic challenges: the most critical of these is the one of setting right the American economy in a situation where the two parties hold diametrically opposite views on some of the most pressing national issues - tax reform, social entitlements, abortion, same-sex marriage or Obama's healthcare plan.

The 'fiscal cliff' looms large over the American economy. At the end of this year, the Bush-era tax cuts will expire and across the board spending cuts will set in, calling for an urgent reform of America's fiscal management. And, with the Republicans retaining control of the House of Representatives, a policy gridlock is almost certain. This is an important juncture in Obama's career that will test his political skills of reaching across the aisle and striking consensus with a group of politicians from the rival party who till now have been singularly focused on defeating his social restructuring plans in the Congress.

The President of the United States, more than that of any other country, also unavoidably faces foreign policy challenges, some anticipated and some not. There have been enough analyses and polls to show that foreign policy issues do not matter much in US elections, though during this year's campaign, differences between the policies of the two candidates towards China, Iran, the Arab world and the Israeli-Palestinian issue did attract attention. These and other unanticipated problems will acquire importance and test Obama's vision and skills. Equally, they will give the President, who has had a strong foreign policy record, the opportunity to solidify his position to build a lasting legacy.

Counter-terrorism post-Osama Bin Laden, US response to Iran's nuclear aspirations, America's equation with Israel and policy challenges accruing out of revolutionary changes in the Middle East and North Africa will be important markers of Obama's foreign policy. The drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan, America's relations with Russia and its Asia policy amidst China's undeniable rise will also require the administration's equally close attention.

Though India did not figure in the US election debates, it did make some guest appearances during electoral rhetoric on outsourcing. But that should not be a cause for concern: demands of business and profit will take care of issues of this kind. While Indians generally favoured the re-election of President Obama, there was also a calm confidence that Indo-US relations would see an upward trend no matter who occupied the Oval Office. However, there does not seem to be much room for a dramatic breakthrough in Obama's second term except, perhaps, in scientific and high-tech exchanges and cooperation in the modernisation of India's military. Incremental progress should be expected in ironing out bottlenecks in cooperation in areas such as civilian nuclear energy and climate change.

US concern over Iran's nuclear aspirations need not be a test case for India-US relationship. No doubt, Iran will continue to hog the limelight among US policymakers. India too does not want Iran to go nuclear and if US-Iran tensions heighten, New Delhi will be hard-pressed to find new narratives to take forward its relations with Tehran without jeopardising its emerging convergence with Washington. Our policy makers should try to find a role for New Delhi in bringing about a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.

As the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan in 2014 nears, a somewhat enhanced role for India in Afghanistan should not be ruled out. Pakistan, like a conjoined twin, is linked to the genesis and also to the solutions of the problems in Afghanistan. We need to reassure Pakistan of India's recognition of this reality and explore ways of India-Pakistan-US cooperation in restoring peace and stability in Afghanistan.

America's re-balancing strategy towards Asia-Pacific (the so-called 'Asia Pivot') is bound to become a major item in the agenda of both New Delhi and Washington; for the United States considers its burgeoning defence relationship with India as the lynchpin of this strategy. In the face of a rising China, early indication of US policy point towards reaffirming America's old alliances with countries like Australia, Japan and South Korea and cementing new relationships with emerging countries like India, Indonesia and other Asian countries wary of China's aggressive posture in the region. Obama's first foreign policy visit after re-election to Cambodia, Thailand and especially Myanmar, which is undergoing a sensitive transition, will reinforce this trend.

Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in the US have positive views on India's growth story and its implications for the region and beyond. The United States seems confident that India's re-energised 'Look East Policy' is good for regional stability and, to a large extent, is congruent with America's policy vision and interests in the region. Four more years of the Obama administration are expected to lend certainty, continuity and stability to the positive trajectory of Indo-US relations. Strengthening of this relationship is vital for America's role in Asia and for India's regional and global aspirations.

The writer, associated with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, specialises in US studies.

Courtesy: The Tribune