The recent reelection of Barack Obama as President, the increase of Democrats in the Senate, and their slight gains in the House of Representatives has led analysts to talk about a changing America. While Obama is a highly popular political figure in Canada, it was somewhat surprising for many of us glued to our television sets to see him declared President before the stroke of midnight on November 6. After all, the polls had been close, but the victory seems to convey that America has indeed begun to change.
There are two ways to assess what this U.S. election tells Canadians. One way is the actual results which show a changing electorate where minorities, women, and youth will continue to play an increasing role in the choice of future presidents. State referenda also showed a transformation on certain social and cultural issues—legalization of marijuana and support for gay marriage.
The Presidential map with its omnipresent Electoral College seems decidedly more favorable to the Democratic coalition. The Senate map is also favorable to Democratic candidates. The House may still be Republican, but districting in states led by predominantly Republicans governors (30 of 50) can be a determining factor. This has led to some public soul-searching on the part of prominent Republican leaders. In a recent television appearance, conservative Republican Newt Gingrich spoke of the U.S. “as a centrist country with a dominant left”. Where is the center right America of just a few weeks back?
Since November 6, Republicans have been arguing about the significance of the election results and whether there are long-term trends affecting their prospects in the next presidential election. Despite conflicting interpretations, it seems that the Republican Congressional leadership is more amenable to a deal in the upcoming “fiscal cliff” talks than some of their Tea Party caucus members. Immigration reform is also back on the table as future GOP presidential aspirants acknowledge the growing influence of the Hispanic demographic on the Electoral College. It is too early to predict where this will all end, but it is becoming evident that the Republicans may be in the process of a makeover if they wish to remain competitive in upcoming national elections.
For Canada, it is important that we realize that the U.S. is dead set on achieving energy independence on its own terms, rebuilding their manufacturing base in a proactive and aggressive manner, emphasizing innovation, opening new markets, and making growth the central component of its economic resurgence. Climate change in a new variation will likely make its way back in the public agenda (thanks in part to Hurricane Sandy). This means that the approval of the Keystone Pipeline is not a given. All in all, a strong U.S. economy is good news, but it will be on its own terms. Not ours.
Canada must take note. The Harper-Obama relationship has been functional and effective. Both countries cooperate out of mutual interest. But Obama has his own rendez-vous with history that second-term presidents covet so much. It is to be expected that America will set its own agenda priorities and will act accordingly.
Finally, in the area of foreign policy, Obama was often derided by his Republican opponents about “leading from behind”. With the U.S. no longer in a combat role in Iraq, and soon to be in a similar situation in Afghanistan, it seems Americans generally appreciate Obama’s foreign policy. The notion of “boots on the ground” has given way to multilateral diplomacy and actions based on common interests. The days of unilateral American engagement seem over. Cooperating and acting in accordance with U.S. foreign policy will become a greater imperative in the years ahead. Yes, the election results of November 6 show America is changing, and this will have an increasing impact on the rest of the world.