LONDON, Nov 5 – He had to laugh. A senior official at one of the world’s leading foreign ministries was describing how he had been in a meeting with a counterpart from the Middle East, who was telling him that the United States no longer mattered the way it used to, in that region especially. “At which point, he had to break off and switch on the TV, so he didn’t miss a minute of Marie Harf’s briefing,” he smiled, referring to a spokeswoman at the State Department.
In other words, the United States still matters, even to those people who say it doesn’t. For that reason, the chancelleries of Europe and elsewhere will have more than half an eye on the results of Tuesday’s midterm elections. They may not obsess over the details of Indiana’s Second District or the turnout in Kentucky, but they will get the broad message. Indeed, they suspect they have already heard it.
Put crudely, it is this: The Obama presidency is over; start planning for the next one. The working assumption is that Barack Obama will formally enter his lame-duck period this week. If the Democrats lose the Senate, the president’s ability to get things done will fall from limited to nonexistent. It’s not that foreign governments especially need bills to pass in the Senate; there are few pending treaties whose fate depends on ratification by that chamber.
Rather, it is the sense that Mr. Obama will become a thwarted leader, his hands tied by hostile majorities in both houses of Congress. Some will respond that that should hardly matter. Just because an American president is frustrated domestically does not diminish his scope for action internationally. Indeed, those outside the United States have long become used to the notion that second-term presidents, blocked at home, often look outward. At this point in their terms, presidents long for a stage on which to act unimpeded, and foreign affairs provides that opening.
But Mr. Obama’s weakened domestic position has a bearing on his international clout. It’s not just that the countdown on his time of office has begun. It also goes to the nature of his global position. For Mr. Obama’s authority rested on more than a simple electoral mandate. The historic nature of his 2008 victory, both as his country’s first black president and as the avowed antidote to George W. Bush, gave him a kind of moral authority beyond American borders.
His standing was almost impossibly high abroad, where he was the repository for the grandest hopes of a transformation in the world order. Recall the Nobel Peace Prize that he won in 2009, when his feet were barely under the desk in the Oval Office. That seems long ago now. Even Mr. Obama’s greatest admirers concede that things have not worked out as they hoped.
The man who promised to end the war in Iraq has sent American forces back into combat over that country and Syria.His Cairo speech in 2009 promised a new beginning with the Muslim world. Instead, his watch has seen the birth and growth of the Islamic State. He threatened to act in 2013 against the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, but that threat evaporated.
His secretary of state, John Kerry, gave everything to bring about an accord between Israelis and Palestinians, but the result was failure. Mr. Obama opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but could do nothing to stop it. His first vow as president, to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, remains unfulfilled. In other words, it is not just Americans who are delivering their verdict on Mr. Obama. The rest of the world has, with a heavy heart, reached the conclusion that his power is fading. The midterm results will only confirm it.