The euphoria associated with Barack Obama's elevation to the United States presidency six years ago is now just the dimmest of memories. Disgruntled Americans delivered their verdict last week on his record in the most emphatic fashion in a vote that saw the Republicans reclaim control of the Senate and extend their majority in the House of Representatives. The term "lame duck" is being bandied about in Washington. It is premature, however, to conclude that President Obama's final two years in office will essentially be spent clearing his desk.
Second-term presidents almost always fare badly in mid-term elections. But that did not stop worthwhile achievements by the likes of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. Usually, these occur in foreign policy, where the president cannot be constrained by Congress and where presidents look to cement a legacy.
President Obama's options are more limited than those of most of his predecessors because of the quagmire in Iraq and Syria. His success in extracting troops from Afghanistan and Iraq has been totally overshadowed by the failings that led to the emergence of Islamic State. Nonetheless, on another front, that of Iran, the President has a realistic chance of reaching an accommodation that could vastly alter the Middle East landscape. There, at least, his judgment has been consistently sound.
Even in domestic affairs, opportunities loom. It would be wrong to overstate the strength of the Republicans' position. The party has still to resolve the divide between its pragmatists and the Tea Party fundamentalists. Continued obstructionism based on the latter's ideological stubbornness will do nothing to suggest they can mount a credible challenge for the presidency in two years. The Republican leadership's new talk of working with the President must be more than mere platitudes.
In fact, a degree of bipartisan co-operation is bound to occur in areas where the Republicans have something to gain. Their last presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, picked up little of the increasingly important Hispanic vote in 2012. The Republicans are in a poor position, therefore, to rail against the President's plan to make it easier for illegal immigrants to stay in the US without fear of deportation. Nor would opposing corporate tax changes, essentially closing many of the loopholes that undermine the Internal Revenue Service's endeavours, be a good look.
But if further issues are to be tackled, President Obama will have to grapple with them in fresh and creative ways. His inexperience has been an impediment during much of his time in the White House. It prompted glitches that tend to disguise what has been achieved in his first six years. It is worth remembering that respect for the US was at its lowest in living memory when he entered the White House. And that he inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
America's standing in the world has picked up immeasurably. The US economy is, likewise, improving, with more than 10 million jobs created since President Obama was elected. It was his misfortune that this growth has yet to boost the income of the average household. The President has been punished accordingly.
For the Democrats, the worst aspect of the mid-term drubbing was that swing states such as Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina, which helped propel President Obama to the White House, deserted them. But the demographic realities of the new America continue to give them an edge in the presidential race. It is now up to Hillary Clinton to rekindle the light that once shone so brightly on President Obama. The Republicans, for their part, must reach out to the disillusioned minorities, young people and women who chose to stay away from the polling booths last week.