Despite the fact that the US presidential election is still a year and a half away, the race has already begun. The Democrats have put forward Hillary Clinton as their candidate, while three people from the Republican party – Senators Ted Cruz from Texas, Rand Paul from Kentucky and Marco Rubio from Florida – have declared their presidential intentions.
In many respects, the preferences of voters in the future election will be determined by their attitude towards the current president. According to the Gallup agency, 46 per cent of Americans currently approve of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as US president, while 50 per cent disapprove. Moreover, Obama’s highest approval rating of 67 per cent was during the first week of his presidency, when he was being judged not by his actions, but by his pre-election promises. Obama’s actual policies have largely disappointed his voters. It is true that his ratings are not as low as George W Bush’s were in the ninth year of his presidency (37 per cent), but they are lower than Bill Clinton’s (60 per cent), Ronald Reagan’s (48 per cent), Lyndon Johnson’s (47 per cent) and Dwight Eisenhower’s (61 per cent). And Obama is not just receiving harsh criticism from the Republicans. In the 2014 midterm elections, many Democrat candidates deliberately distanced themselves from Obama and his policies, believing that support of the current president would only lower their chances.
Barack Obama’s lack of popularity is having a negative impact on the prospects of any candidate from his party, which is why the main contender for the Democratic nomination is Hillary Clinton, whose name is associated with the more successful presidency of her husband. She fought against Obama to the bitter end in the 2008 Democratic primaries. In the end, she resigned early from her post as secretary of state in the Obama administration, so bearing less of the burden of his foreign policy failures.
Clinton’s candidacy seems to be a success for the Democrats. Despite the voters’ overall disillusionment with the policies of the Democratic administration, Clinton outstripped every potential Republican candidate in all of the April polls. Her advantage is fairly small, however, and in the case of 52-year-old Rand Paul it is close to zero. The big battle for the position of US president is still to come.
With regard to the Republican nominations, the fact that all three are supporters of the Tea Party movement, which was established in 2009 in response to the health reforms initiated by Obama and a number of other steps taken by his administration, is worthy of attention.This movement positions itself as an alternative to the Republican establishment and advocates lowering taxes, reducing government expenditure and defending traditional Christian values. The Tea Party also stands up for the rights of the states in the face of Washington bureaucracy.
It is interesting that two of the three Republican presidential candidates, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are Cuban. The parents of both emigrated to the US during the Batista dictatorship, while Cruz’s father was at one time an ally of Fidel Castro in his revolutionary struggle. Curiously, Cruz and Rubio are the only Latin American senators in the Republican Party and nominating them both for the presidency may suggest that the bosses of the Republican Party have creatively interpreted the ‘Obama phenomenon’ and consider these candidates to be a way of challenging the Democrats through the votes of racial minorities.
Traditionally, foreign policy issues do not play a very big role in American elections. Americans are more concerned about the economy, taxes, health, immigration, and the race issue. Nevertheless, international relations are becoming a regular subject of TV debates in the US and candidates need to have a clear position on the different aspects of foreign policy. International issues are also of interest to those voters who fall outside of the statistically average, especially in some diasporas. Not to mention the fact that the US presidential candidates are also of significant interest to the rest of the world.
Here, Hillary Clinton has incomparably more experience on her side. She wisely limited her tenure as the head of US diplomacy to just one term and is now free to criticise the outgoing president. Also, she never managed to become the chief architect of US foreign policy during her tenure as secretary of state because this role was reserved for Vice President Joe Biden, who Obama trusts far more. Hillary Clinton is able to have a much more dramatic effect on foreign policy than both Obama and Biden. In 2009, it was Clinton, together with US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, who insisted on increasing the US contingent in Afghanistan by 30,000 troops, while Biden advised limiting reinforcements to a much more modest number. She also suggested extending the withdrawal of US troops over a longer time period. Secretary of State Clinton came up with the idea of America’s military intervention in Libya and supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition. She was also in favour of shifting the focus of America’s foreign policy efforts and the redeployment of US troops to East Asia to keep a check on China’s development.
Clintonis also in favour of strengthening ties between the US and Israel and supports Israel’s military action in the region. Here her viewpoint has often drifted away from that of Obama and Biden, but on the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme they are practically soulmates. Clinton has always been in favour of solving the issue through diplomatic means and welcomed the preliminary agreement reached in Lausanne on 2 April.
At one time, Hillary was an advocate of resetting relations with Russia, but is now demanding that Obama supply weapons and increase financial aid to Ukraine. It is possible that her position is being governed to some extent by the fact that the Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk is a major donor to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s family foundation.
The Republicans view Hillary’s foreign policy as disastrous. Among other things, Marco Rubio speaks of her resetting policy with Russia; Rubio believes that Clinton’s election will be a continuation of the Obama presidency. The American conservative press is already full of accusations against Hillary, so her fight for the presidency is not promising to be an easy one.
And as far as the main Republican candidates are concerned, their foreign policy preferences are largely determined by their membership of the Tea Party movement. Members of this movement are nothing like those neoconservative Republicans that Americans got used to seeing in key posts in the George W Bush administration. They combine their faith in American exclusivity and America’s special role in the world with scepticism regarding America’s ability to create a liberal world order. In the event of a real threat to America, they are ready for all-out war, but in those instances where liberal interventionists like Hillary propose a limited war with limited objectives, the members of this wing of Republicans would prefer not to get involved in the conflict at all. Although in an age of globalisation, of course, there are very few outspoken isolationists in the US political class. Even Rand Paul is far from the kind of isolationist that his father is.