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Keith B. Richburg: Asia provides refuge from 'Obama derangement syndrome' -- but then what?

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President Barack Obama faces reporters in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 5.   © Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Asia in the coming days a damaged leader, weakened at home after midterm elections saw his Democratic Party rejected across the board and, most crucially, his Republican opponents take control of the U.S. Senate for the first time since 2007.

     For Asian leaders, the question they will be pondering during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing on Nov. 10-12, the subsequent East Asian Summit in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, and the G-20 gathering in Brisbane, Australia, on Nov. 15-16, is: just how damaged is Obama and just how weak?

     Can the American president still deliver on his promises when facing a new and hostile Senate? Can the U.S. still be counted on to provide leadership in the Asia-Pacific region, at a time of economic slowdown in Europe and elsewhere? And can America still project strength in the region, in the face of rising tensions with an ascendant China?

     "The question in the backs of the minds of many of the leaders he will meet in Asia will be, how badly the loss has dented his presidency," said Murray Hiebert, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank. "The ball will be in Obama's court to demonstrate he can still lead on foreign policy."

     If Obama can take any solace as he boards Air Force One to escape the negative headlines and fallout from the Democratic wipeout, it is this: since his historic election victory in 2008, his standing overseas has always been higher than his middling poll ratings back home. This is particularly so in Asia, since the Hawaii-born Obama has styled himself as "America's first Pacific president." In Indonesia, where he spent part of his childhood, Obama is still treated as something like a rock star.

     There are several causes for that disconnect -- admired abroad, disrespected at home. To understand the phenomenon, it is important to delve deeper into the midterm election results, and discern the reason why a significant bloc of voters has always viewed this president as either illegitimate, dangerous or, in some circles, literally the Antichrist.

     There is no way to downplay the depth and breadth of the Nov. 4 repudiation. Republicans won most of the competitive open Senate seats in play, and managed to knock off incumbent Democratic senators in Arkansas, North Carolina, Colorado, Alaska and possibly Louisiana, which is heading to a runoff. Moreover, the Republicans held on to coveted governorships in several traditionally Democratic-leaning states like Wisconsin and Michigan, and picked up governorships in solidly Democratic Eastern Seaboard states Maryland and Massachusetts.

     How could a president who was solidly re-elected in 2012 with 51.1% of the vote find his party and policies so thoroughly rejected just two years later? And why would voters turn against him when the U.S. economy, which showed 3.5% annual growth in the third quarter this year, appears to have largely recovered from the economic crisis he inherited?

     First, there were the macro issues beyond the president's immediate control, a confluence of crises -- Russian adventurism in Ukraine; the rise of Islamic State militants and the specter of televised beheadings of U.S. citizens; and the deadly Ebola virus touching American soil. All of these raised voters' anxieties.

     Second, there was widespread disgust at Washington's political dysfunction, known as gridlock. Much of this has to do with the determined obstructionism of his Republican opponents in the legislature, who refused to even schedule votes on key pieces of Obama-backed legislation, like an immigration reform package, and will not even allow up-or-down votes to confirm a raft of Obama's nominees, including more than 30 ambassadorships. But whoever is to blame, voters held Obama, as president, responsible for the continuing logjam -- and his inability to either compromise more with Republicans (as the right wing wants), or use his presidential muscle to roll over the opposition (as his Democratic supporters would wish).

     Third, there was the vehemence of Obama's opponents in trying to tear him down -- an almost pathological hatred in some quarters of this president that has been referred to as '"ODS," or Obama Derangement Syndrome. This is one of the least-examined, least-analyzed of the various factors at play, but it goes a long way to explaining what happened to the Democrats on Nov. 4.

ODS takes hold

Obama won election in 2008 as the first African-American president, and the first urban liberal president since John F. Kennedy, mainly because of his unique ability to "expand the electorate," as his campaign gurus called it, meaning growing the pool of voters to tap into those who traditionally stayed home on election day -- black Americans, Hispanics, young voters and unmarried, working women.

     Voting analysts and some pollsters were stunned by how many first-time voters swamped polling places in 2008. And the phenomenon was boosted by an increase across the country in early voting and mail-in voting, making it easier than ever to cast ballots. Many of those new voters, especially African-Americans, were excited by the prospect of the first U.S. president of color.

     But those are precisely the voters who do not normally turn up for midterm elections, like the one just held. So the 2014 electorate -- just like the 2010 electorate that gave the majority in the House of Representatives to the Republicans -- was older, whiter and more conservative. Obama alluded to this in his Nov. 5 post-election news conference, when he noted that two-thirds of eligible voters did not vote on Tuesday.

     Preliminary exit polls showed this year's midterm voters were three-quarters white. And young people ages 18 to 29 made up just 13% of the electorate, way down from 2012, when Obama was re-elected and young people accounted for nearly 20% of votes.

     Hispanics voted for Democrats by a massive 30-point margin this year -- but they comprised just 8% of the voters who turned out, despite their growing numbers in the population.

     Seen another way, white voters this year backed Republicans by a hefty 20-point margin. And, in the typical midterm election pattern, there simply were not enough black, Hispanic and young voters -- the Obama coalition -- to offset that inbuilt Republican off-year advantage.

     The resistance to Obama has always been strongest among white voters, particularly white male voters in the South. Look at some of this year's electoral contests, and see how the Democrats suffered heavy losses in places they thought they had a chance -- Georgia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and West Virginia. Those are parts of the Old Confederacy, places where Obama's approval ratings are dismal, states Mitt Romney carried in 2012 and where opposition to a black president and his policies has been strongest.

     Most politicians and analysts prefer to tiptoe around the question of the racial dimension to Obama Derangement Syndrome, and the few who have dared speak out are immediately chastised.

     West Virginia Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, who retired, created a small firestorm back in May when he said opposition to Obama's signature health care law was partly race-based. "Maybe he's of the wrong color, something of that sort," Rockefeller said. "I've seen a lot of that and I know a lot of that to be true. It's not something you're meant to talk about in public but it's something I'm talking about in public because that is very true."

     In Louisiana, Senator Mary Landrieu, who now faces stiff odds in a runoff, was hammered by Republican politicians and the far right media when she said in October: "I'll be very, very honest with you. The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans. It's been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader." Landrieu refused to backtrack, issuing a statement later saying, "Everyone knows this is the truth, and I will continue to speak the truth ... ."

     Many black voters accepted that truth long ago, from the time Obama first took office. It was what fueled the racist questions about whether he was born in the U.S. It was what blacks saw behind the unprecedented outburst during Obama's State of the Union speech when a conservative South Carolina congressman interrupted the speech -- and violated all rules of decorum -- by shouting "You lie!" It was what lay behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's thinly veiled, racially charged attack on Obama as "the food stamp president."

Inside, outside: the disconnect

Abroad, Obama has been widely praised and admired -- largely for not being George W. Bush. Obama ended America's war in Iraq; he has taken the first (belated) steps to combat climate change; he acknowledged the importance of working multilaterally through the United Nations and other international organizations. He is cerebral and contemplative, not prone to overheated cowboy rhetoric.

     The same qualities that overseas audiences find appealing are what so infuriates his critics at home. Those critics, voting en masse, have delivered their verdict at the midterm ballot box.

     Obama can be thankful he is heading out of town after that midterm drubbing, to visit countries where he is likely to be more appreciated. But being admired is one thing. The question is, can he still lead?

     My bet is Obama still has a chance to make an impact, even as a weakened lame duck, and it is possible in the foreign policy sphere where presidents have far more leeway. Second-term presidents in their final years often find a haven in foreign policy. And overseas, there is little of that Obama Derangement Syndrome to contend with.

Keith B. Richburg was the Washington Post's bureau chief in Manila, Nairobi, Hong Kong, Paris and Beijing, and was the paper's foreign editor from 2005 to 2007. He is currently writing a book about China.

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