Although Election Day is still 11 months away, both Republican and Democratic candidates are in the middle of intensive senatorial and congressional campaigns. This November, the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are up for re-election. Historically, midterm elections during the second term of a presidency tend to be difficult for the party in power. Just ask former President George W. Bush, who lost the House and the Senate to the Democrats in 2006. However, the Republicans have been polling poorly as of late. In spite of widespread frustration with the Obama administration’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, the American public is equally disdainful of the Republican-controlled House, which caused a costly 16-day government shutdown last October. Both parties carry significant liabilities into the midterm elections, but opportunities abound for both sides.
After five years of sluggish growth, the economy looks ready for resurgence this year. The Dow Jones Industrial Index hit all-time highs last December, showing investors’ willingness to jump back into still-shaky markets. Consumer confidence has rebounded over the past few months, reaching 78.1 in December. Accordingly, we now look to be heading for a year of growth. Although foreign markets, particularly the EU, continue to face significant obstacles, the U.S. looks to be in comparatively good shape. There are, as always, signs of danger, but these are fewer and farther between than they have been in years past.
In the realm of foreign policy, the upcoming year looks less promising. Human rights will continue to pose problems for the international community as the conflict in Syria continues. In the aftermath of the chemical weapons catastrophe last August, the international deal to eliminate Bashir al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles made essentially no impact on the civil war. Moderate militia elements like the Free Syrian Army, which the Obama administration tried to arm, have been pushed aside, and al-Qaida affiliated groups like the al-Nusra Front have moved in to take control. These developments mean that any resolution to the conflict is essentially a worse case scenario.
Likewise, the Israel-Palestine negotiation process appears to have stalled. Despite over 20 visits to the region by Secretary of State John Kerry, a deal appears impossible, as neither side has the political will to make painful concessions. Finally, the Winter Olympics in Russia have sparked a brutal security regime in the area surrounding Sochi. Russia has spent over $2 billion to protect the area from the types of terrorists who bombed Volgograd last month, but the security question is ongoing.
Both domestically and internationally, 2014 appears to be a challenging year for the Obama administration and the United States as a whole. At home, the midterm elections could swing either way, despite historical trends against second-term incumbents. The debt ceiling continues to loom large in the political landscape, threatening to derail the sporadic recovery of confidence in the nation’s fragile financial system. Abroad, the conflicts of interest in Syria and Israel-Palestine are entrenched. The enormous obstacles to peace in both situations will probably prove too substantial for any of the involved parties to overcome, so a negotiated solution is unlikely in the foreseeable future.
However, these daunting tests in international affairs belie positive trends in the domestic scene. This country remains the primary vehicle of economic growth and political stability in the world, and the opportunities here are still unparalleled. So the outlook for 2014? Cautiously optimistic.