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UPDATED: December 18, 2014 NO. 33 AUGUST 14, 2014
Obama's Dilemma
Faced with unrelenting political pressure at home and abroad, the U.S. president's remaining tenure is fraught with challenges
By An Gang

It is generally acknowledged that the United States will need at least 10 years to regain confidence in its economy and foreign strategy. The public will have to endure the consequences of the economic recession and income gap for years to come. Meanwhile, a sharp increase in the partisan divide is sure to continue. In the long run, Obama may come to be seen as a placeholder in the long-term national strategic transition of the United States.

Interaction with China

High-ranking officials in the Obama administration acknowledge that the rapid rise of China is the most important side issue of the "U.S. decline" as well as a reason for the spreading pessimism in Washington. On the one hand, these patriots find solace by claiming that the United States still possesses an unparalleled military, a strong economy, innovative industries and institutional advantages. And on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, Chinese officials and scholars are also making careful assessments regarding whether the Obama administration is really weak in foreign affairs, or if the supposed "decline" is mere posturing. For a rising power, its interpretation of the strategic trend of the established power is critical for shaping its own foreign strategy.

Many foreign policy watchers foresee a period of flux. While none of them doubt that the United States will continue to be the primary world power, an increasing number believe that U.S. power is shrinking—or at least is being detracted—and that the strength gap between China and the United States is narrowing, providing an unprecedented strategic opportunity for China to gain the status of a major power. China hopes to be involved in international affairs more creatively and safeguard its legitimate rights and interests, rather than reacting passively in maritime disputes with some neighboring countries. The internal and external conundrums of the United States have undoubtedly contributed to the boost in China's self-confidence.

Washington has interpreted China's stance in the East China and South China seas as an "aggressive" maritime strategy. To counterbalance China's influence in the region, the Obama administration has given up its neutral policy over the disputes by welcoming Japan's lifting of its bans on collective self-defense. The moves in return have instigated Japan, the Philippines and Viet Nam in pursuing more radical and provocative actions toward China, further inflaming tensions in East Asia.

The White House clearly does not want a deteriorating state of Sino-U.S. relations to dominate its long list of problems. Obama's representatives have seized many opportunities to claim that the United States has no intention to contain China. But the real reason for the U.S. gesture is the deeply intertwined economic interests of the two countries. Washington needs the cooperation of Beijing over a series of major global issues, thus it cannot afford confrontations with China. However, the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" strategy—aimed at strengthening its alliance with regional countries and reinforcing its military bases—has strongly suggested a policy of containing China, in spite of claims to the contrary.

Domestic plight

Obama's leadership has been the target of fierce criticism since he took office in 2008. Conservative Congress members and interventionists from both the right and left wings have launched a public opinion campaign ahead of this year's congressional races as well as the preliminary stage of the 2016 general election. Republicans have concentrated their attacks on Obama's foreign policy, accusing the president of being weak and indecisive in the face of disorder around the globe. They claim Obama's policies have given the U.S. an image of weakness, and even those who oppose sending troops abroad have criticized the Obama administration for a perceived lack of executive leadership.

Observers in Washington have claimed that the constant barrage of criticism has taken a toll on the president, whose public relations efforts are now laced with cynicism. Perhaps weary of the capital, Obama is often seen at the golf courses or at fundraisers among supporters—far more frequently than his predecessors. As the divide between Democrats and Republicans grows wider than ever, Obama is already heading toward a "lame duck second term."

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review

Email us at: liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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