“In January, among our “drivers” for 2011, we highlighted the challenges facing American governance in the following terms: “With Congress divided and ideological passions prominent, the ability of the US governance system to deliver timely decisions on the pressing issues of the day will be severely tested.”
The messy confrontation before the last-minute, albeit still tentative, deal over the 2011 budget – already 6 months overdue – provides an early taste of the much more serious battles that lie ahead. These include the 2012 federal budget and the debt limit for federal borrowing. On the surface, the debate will play out in terms of the levels of government spending.
Underneath, however, a more fundamental disagreement is involved.
Over a wide range of basic questions – health care, social security, defense, the environment, and social policy – the Democrats and Republicans have radically different interpretations of the role of government. Both sides contain sizeable elements that see these as ‘make or break’ issues of principle on which they are unwilling to compromise. A further factor to be considered is President Obama’s governing style. His preference is to allow consensus to emerge from seminar-like debate rather than to play political hardball. Obama’s closest advisers are urging him to ‘take off the gloves’, but this approach does not come naturally to him.
With the 2012 elections already casting a long shadow, the prospect for US domestic politics is one of increasing deadlock. Whether foreign policy can separate itself from this domestic situation remains to be seen. One likely outcome is that funds for the State Department and USAID will come under renewed pressure. Major changes will soon take place in the top national security team (this also applies to Treasury). Based on conversations with senior Administration officials, Obama will be looking for replacements with managerial and political strengths rather than a high profile.
The White House political staff sees little advantage in foreign policy. Caution on this front explains the US drawback on Libya. It will also mean that the US will avoid major new initiatives, whether in the Middle East, Afghanistan or elsewhere. The one exception may be China. Here, the absence of firm leadership from the White House may open the way to those looking for a more adversarial approach. The latest State Department Human Rights Report released on April 8th singles China out for specific criticism.”