When he arrives in New Delhi on January 25/26, US President Obama will still have a week short of two years in office. In contrast, Bill Clinton, when he visited India in March 2000 as Prime Minister Vajpayee’s guest, had only about 10 months to go before demitting office after a second term (because of term-limits, a US president cannot serve more than two terms). Vajpayee himself was Clinton’s last state guest in September 2000 when the US president only had about four months to go in his presidency. They didn’t too badly in laying the foundation of a solid US-India partnership.
Although the 58th quadrennial US presidential election is due on November 8, 2016, and the new presidential-elect will likely be known the very next day, President Obama will continue to exercise full executive power till January 20, 2017, when the 45th president will be sworn in. Past records show that even in this so-called “lame-duck” period, with the shadow of a new Congress and a president-elect over them, incumbent presidents exercised their authority to order military actions and issue executive orders.
This has happened many times, according to presidential historians and analysts. Most recently, President Bush was able to implement the surge in Iraq when his policies in 2007 seemed to be failing and he was at the tail end of his second term, with Congress in Democratic hands. Even domestically, he initiated executive action to save the financial market from collapse in the final days, even final hours of his presidency.
“History shows that the next few years could be a highly creative and significant period in Obama’s presidency,” writes Julian Zelizer, a Professor of History at Princeton University and author of Governing America. “Just when things seem most desperate, presidents have sometimes found the space they need in the closing months of their term to make gains.”
Obama and Modi at the White House earlier this year. (File Photo)
Lisa Curtis, a Heritage Foundation scholar and former CIA analyst told ToI that President Obama, faced with criticism about his handling of key foreign policy issues, is likely hoping a splashy visit to India will help him start off the New Year with a foreign policy win. “Aside from the symbolism and optics of being the first US President to serve as chief guest at the Republic Day celebration, Obama has a real chance to cement ties with India in a way that supports US goals with the Asia pivot,” she said.
Curtis also maintains that the invitation demonstrates that, unlike Manmohan Singh during his second tenure, Modi is not afraid to lean toward the United States. Obama’s visit in January, which will make him the only serving U.S president to visit India twice, allows the two countries to continue the positive momentum in relations that was started by Modi’s visit to the US, she added.
India also has the added advantage of bipartisan support in Washington, with both Democrats and Republicans backing strong ties with New Delhi. “The importance of US-India relations cannot be overstated. Frankly, this has been a relationship that unfortunately has struggled to find its footing in the last several years,” said Congressman Ed Royce, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee and a strong votary of even greater engagement with India. “The president’s visit could be another important step in getting this relationship back on track, following Prime Minister Modi’s very successful trip to the US.”
“Given the significant threat India and the US face from radicalism, the president’s visit should have a strong counterterrorism component, as well. US President Obama should push for more high-level visits by each country’s various intelligence and security agencies. Our cooperation is strong, but there remains a need for greater engagement,” Royce advised.
Given such views, Obama’s visit will be anything but ceremonial, despite it being linked to the Republic Day celebrations. In fact, in as much as it commemorates the adoption of India’s constitution, the R-Day parade has lately become a showcase of India’s military heft, with the overt display of military muscle, including nuclear missiles. New Delhi wheeled out its Agni-5 missiles during 2013 Republic Day parade, and it remains to be seen what firepower will float past President Obama on January 26, 2015.