Collective American disappointment in Barack Obama has swept the opposition Republicans to power in the House of Representatives and given them handsome gains in the Senate. They have now got the power that they wanted to effortlessly block whatever legislation they wish. That bodes ill for the president's reform agenda and gives him a reason to shift attention to less worrisome issues for voters, like foreign policy. As tempting as that may be, it is the economy he needs to put every effort into, not a doctrine that is well defined and needs little tweaking.
The state of the economy is, after all, largely what got Obama into this situation. Americans voted him into office two years ago on a wave of hope, believing he could bring about the change he had promised. He has engineered and steered landmark legislation, but his inability to get the American financial system back into gear, reduce the mammoth deficit and cut the stubbornly high jobless rate has left a sour taste in too many mouths. Traditionally in US politics, by the mid-point of a government's term, there has been a loss of support and consequently seats in Congress. However, the president's circumstances meant a greater-than-usual decline.
It is not entirely his fault. He took up residence in the White House with a legacy that ensured his job would not be easy - economic collapse, two wars and budget-crunching tax cuts, courtesy of George W. Bush's administration. Big changes were necessary to get the house in order, a challenging prospect in a political system that is designed to make dramatic legislative shifts difficult. He has fared remarkably well, getting a giant stimulus package through Congress and rescuing banks and carmakers. There was even energy to put in place health care reform, a long-cherished dream of Democratic Party presidents.
Obama calls the latter a triumph, but like the economy, it has not served him well politically. The compromise that led to the reform's approval has watered down its worth, losing him support in his own party, deepening disapproval among opponents and losing him respect with the electorate. His calling the banks and companies that caused the economic crisis fat cats has won him enemies in a sector that is crucial to driving the recovery forward. Huge effort is needed to win back support so that America and, by association through global-embracing connections, the world, can again have certainty about where it is heading.
For that to happen he needs to focus on domestic matters, not foreign policy. He took power with a clear view of the world and the United States' place in it. China's position, he knows, puts constraints on the well defined US global agenda. He understands Beijing's support is essential for resolving the world's problems, a return to economic growth uppermost among them. Nothing is to be gained by emphasising the negative, like taking legislative steps in a bid to force balanced trade and faster revaluation of the yuan or dramatically boosting military co-operation with China's neighbours. Measured dialogue is the best response.
Elections generally have little effect on US foreign policy. That is again likely to be the case after Obama's bruising losses. He has got nothing to gain politically, nor will Americans benefit, by a significant shift. Getting the American economy firmly back into the black and working with China and other fast-developing nations to achieve that has to be his priority. Getting the new-look Congress on board will be challenging, but essential.