President Obama’s political situation after the mid-term election defeat of the Democrats is the same as it was before. Kevin Drum, as so often, gets this one right. (Get well, Kevin, even slowly). Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds, but gridlock, gridlock. Obama’s positive agenda lies entirely within his executive prerogative. He can take action in a very few fields: immigration, the EPA coal regulation, housing finance and Keystone come to mind. He will surely act on the first two, and on past experience leave housing a mess. Keystone? Your guess is as good as mine. Going by the public option in healthcare, which enjoyed a similarly lukewarm commitment, approval is probably on the table as a bargaining chip over the budget.
The other thing he can do is have fun and set traps for the GOP and stake out positions to prepare the 2016 election. HRC can likely see off any of the available GOP candidates, so the aim is to retake the Senate and reduce the GOP hold on the House. Presidential and Senate victories can be won simply by energising the Democratic base to show up at the polls with a stock agenda. The geographical concentration of Democrats indicates that regaining the House cannot be done by this alone, and requires reversing the loss of older white working-class voters with a broad message of opportunity and progress. One wedge issue here is climate: polls show that GOP politicians are unrepresentative of their own divided base on climate change and the energy transition, apart from unpopular carbon taxes.
One prerogative of the executive is the negotiation of treaties.
The big one coming up is a climate treaty, hopefully to be approved at the Paris UN climate session in December 2015. Technically this would be, like the Kyoto agreement, a protocol to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This is an aspirational and procedural agreement without binding targets, but the US is a party along with everybody else.
If the US negotiating position in Paris is defined by “something that can pass the Senate”, it is empty: no climate treaty can do so. Other delegations will understand this perfectly well. The US will find itself ignored as a non-player, but US abdication will make the chance of agreement among everybody else remote.
A better tactic, emulating that of the Clinton Administration on the International Criminal Court, would be to negotiate a strong treaty in line with objective US interests as the Administration sees them. It would be designed to fail in the Senate, with votes on record, and to become an issue in the 2016 election. Paris Protocol = American cleantech jobs and energy independence! Strangled by the Kochtopus! Republicans are for hurricanes and droughts!
Suppose Paris fails to agree on a universal protocol, because of opposition from India or Saudi Arabia or Australia or Canada or * Backwoodistan. As I’ve argued here before, the startling elimination of significant net costs for an aggressive mitigation strategy has removed the free rider problem. A partial agreement is better than none. The fallback US aim could therefore be a side-agreement of a coalition of the willing, of which the core would have to include the US, China and the EU. Many others would join this in the course of time. A model for such a process is provided by the Schengen agreement of 1985 : to get round strong British opposition to a common area of free movement within the EU, five likeminded countries adopted a go-ahead treaty between themselves. Originally this was outside the EU structures, but has since been brought within them – still without the UK. If an American reader plans to travel to Europe, you will need to know about Schengen.
* The power of holdouts to block a multilateral agreement is limited. The UN operates by strict consensus in the Security Council, with vetoes; but by majority in the General Assembly. Common sense limits the power of a single small objector to hold things up. Patricia Espinosa, then Foreign Minister of Mexico, as chair of the Cancun conference in 2010 simply overrode the objections of Bolivia to the closing statement. Since the (n-1) in agreement have a sovereign Westphalian right to make any deal they like among themselves, the power of a holdout depends on realpolitik not formal status. A climate agreement without the US, China and the EU doesn’t mean much; without Bolivia, it’s entirely doable. Australia, Canada and probably Saudi Arabia could be ignored. I’m not sure about India, but it really wants that seat on the Security Council.