Finally, after months of chasing money and striking postures, of breathless polls reporting on inattentive voters, the presidential races head toward real votes in caucuses and primaries, beginning in Iowa and New Hampshire. Already, the attack ad salvos are unleashed; the vitriol has escalated.
Beneath the noise, here are some things to watch for in the early months of 2016:
Will President Obama Find His Voice?
Obama is down in the polls; doubts about his handling for foreign policy have risen post-Paris and San Bernardino. His halting efforts to extract the U.S. from endless wars in the Middle East have failed, as he reluctantly dispatches more soldiers into Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, pursuing strategies that he clearly doubts will work. His ill-conceived effort to isolate China through the Trans-Pacific Partnership accord and the “Asian pivot” is headed into trouble both at home and abroad.
Yet, in recent months he has achieved some of his most notable foreign policy successes through intense diplomatic effort: the most significant nuclear non-proliferation advance in the Iran deal, an opening to our neighbors and the 21st century in the move to normalize relations with Cuba, and the first step in leading the world to address the challenge of catastrophic climate change in Paris.
In his final year of office, the president has little hope for major legislation at home. But he retains the bully pulpit, and the scope for action abroad. Will he use these last months in office to challenge the bipartisan folly of our effort to police the world? Will he help Americans understand the clear and present danger posed by climate change, even while helping them see the folly of waging endless wars across the world against terrorists sects?
Our special operations forces were active in some 150 countries in 2014. They are generating more terrorists than they are killing, and involving us in local disputes that we have no knowledge of or interest in. In his last year of office, President Eisenhower warned us of the dangers of a military industrial complex. Will President Obama have the courage and independence to speak as clearly about our current misadventures?
Will Movements Continue to Drive our Politics?
Political movements – on the right and the left – have upended politics as usual. Occupy put inequality and the way the 1 percent rig the rules on the agenda. The Latino uprising made immigration a central debate in both parties. The Tea Party drove Republicans into unrelenting obstruction of everything Obama. Black Lives Matters forced police injustice onto the national debate.
But as the primaries approach, movements are expected to fade. The gatekeepers in each party line up behind more established candidates. The deep pockets rally around “responsible” choices. The media scorn the insurgents, and reinforces the conventional, no matter how clear the failure.
Donald Trump has disrupted this process in the Republican primaries to date. But we can see its effects on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton has lined up the big money, the endorsements, the gatekeepers, the political pros. The Democratic National Committee has helped by suppressing public debates. The press has systematically followed the circus that is Trump while underreporting the Bernie Sanders surge that drew the largest crowds and interest through the primary season.
The question is whether citizen movements will disrupt the conventional order. Will Clinton’s endorsements and professional organizers wrap up the Iowa caucuses? Or will the young, the angry, those tired of endless wars abroad and the corruption of our politics and economy at home surprise by showing up at the polls? Will the activist energy behind Black Lives Matter and the Dreamers line up with their gatekeepers or will they demand more than lip service by going with an insurgent? Will the demonstrations continue even as the primaries are rolling out?
How Will Clinton Take on Obama?
As Obama’s former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton faces a central question: Does she represent Obama’s third term or something new? When asked this in an early debate, she joked that she’d obviously be different because she’s a woman. But that won’t do.
Thus far, she has chosen, as a major source of contrast, to present herself as more hawkish and interventionist. (Yes, she came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership but neither the president nor anyone else thinks this is anything but a political gesture.) She has the record to prove it. She supported President Bush’s invasion in Iraq. She pushed hard for the ill-fated intervention in Libya. She lobbied for sending “advisors” to mythical “moderate rebels” in Syria. She also remains committed to creating a “no-fly zone” there against the Russians and Syrians, and to taking on Assad (and his Russian and Iranian allies) even while seeking to destroy ISIS. Her support of the Iran nuclear deal was accompanied by bellicose promises to send more military aid to Israel, to augment the fleet in the Persian Gulf, to add sanctions on Iran and more. She’s a major advocate of isolating China in Asia, and in escalating the face-off in the South China Sea. She’s a major proponent of moving NATO to the Russian border and taking on Russia over Ukraine.
Will war-weary voters be pleased or appalled to learn that the major difference between Obama and Clinton may well be that she promises a more interventionist and more hawkish administration? Democratic Party caucus goers in Iowa have traditionally been a hotbed of anti-war sentiment, something that greatly benefited candidate Obama in 2008. Will those sentiments surface again?
Can Sanders Surge Again?
Few expected the septuagenarian senator to surge in popularity, particularly among the young. The Sanders campaign has already made history. He’s demonstrated that populist insurgents can run politically viable campaigns on the basis of small contributions – weakening the hold of big money on our politics. He’s demonstrated that a clear populist message combined with bold plans for rebuilding the country have a broad popular appeal – despite the fact that the entire official apparatus of the party is lined up against him, and the mainstream media dismisses him.
Now the question is can he surge again? Can he surprise in Iowa and New Hampshire, and gain a new stage to reach millions of voters who only then will be beginning to pay attention?
This can’t be done by him alone. Thousands of organizers, activists, and millions of voters will have to rally against the odds. And Sanders will need to grab the moment: making clear the choice, not simply on policy at home and abroad, but on whose side his rivals are on. If he manages that, 2016 may well surprise us all.