Authors: Steven Webster and Sumit Ganguly, Indiana University
Joe Biden’s election in November 2020 brought hope that political divisions in the United States could be eased under a new administration. But US foreign policy remains hostage to the deeply divided domestic partisan forces that have come to characterise US politics.
While Trump’s election defeat removed the most immediate threat to US democracy, the divisions and anti-democratic forces that buoyed Trump’s rise to the Oval Office remain. This is due in large part to two truths of US politics — presidential power is inherently limited, and the problems that plague domestic politics run deeper than any one individual’s presence on the political scene.
The first truth means that Biden is unable to unilaterally reverse the anti-democratic trends that have emerged over the past six years. The belief that presidents are all-powerful actors who can bend political reality to their will is a myth. Presidents are constrained actors who operate within a complex system of individuals, each with their own interests and pursuits. This means that presidents are often unable to make the changes they desire.
Despite taking office on the back of the highest number of votes ever won by a presidential candidate, Biden remains limited in his ability to unilaterally affect meaningful change. For instance, Biden remains unable to pass voting rights legislation or his ‘Build Back Better’ agenda.
The second truth is more troubling. The problems that plague US politics are deep-seated, and the election or removal of any president is unlikely to alleviate them. US politics is increasingly rancorous in tone, with political loyalties forged often by anger and antipathy. In a political climate defined by ‘negative partisanship’, political identities, policy positions, and views on democracy are determined by the parties and politicians that voters loathe more than those that they love.
As a result, the backlash against Joe Biden’s policies among Republicans is both fierce and expected. These realities — combined with the fact that partisan control of the White House tends to shift between parties and Trump continues to remain popular among Republicans — mean that the turmoil and vitriol of the past six years is unlikely to abate.
The limited nature of presidential power and the increasingly antagonistic tenor of US domestic politics inevitably affects foreign policy. A number of prominent Republicans who previously harboured presidential aspirations and remain mostly in the thrall of Trump have an intransigent attitude toward Biden and his foreign policy preferences. Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio have held up a number of ambassadorial appointments on specious grounds.
These efforts are part and parcel of partisan posturing designed to keep the Biden administration off balance in an evenly divided Senate where the president has limited room to manoeuvre. Matters could still become considerably worse for Biden if the Republicans successfully seize control of the Senate in the upcoming November mid-term elections. This is expected, as the party holding the presidency has historically taken substantial losses during the mid-terms in both the House and the Senate.
Assuming that COVID-19 persists and soaring inflation is not contained over the next few months, the likelihood of the Democratic Party losing one or both houses of Congress is a real possibility. This will only embolden Republicans to be even more obstreperous.
Under these circumstances, the fragile consensus that exists in the House and the Senate about the China’s growing assertiveness in Asia and the need to counter it may be one of the few sources of continuing foreign policy accord. Apart from the former president and a small number of extreme Republicans, a broad bipartisan consensus does seem to exist on how best to deal with the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.
Differences may still arise on the strategies and tactics that would need to be adopted in order to counter China’s challenge to US interests in Asia. These differences could widen as the next presidential election cycle starts and some key presidential aspirants decide to adopt blatantly partisan stances merely to embarrass the Biden administration.
These extant divisions may come to the fore if Kim Jong-un stepped up his bellicose behavior or if Chinese President Xi Jinping were to increase military pressure on Taiwan. With a domestic political scene characterised by anger and antipathy, as well as limited presidential power, US foreign policy may well become subject to the vicissitudes of a deeply fractured domestic political landscape.
Steven Webster is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Sumit Ganguly is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.
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