News Analysis

Thursday 28 August 2014

Obama faces battle to keep word on breaking political deadlock

Robert Schmuhl

Published 01/01/2013 | 17:00

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As Barack Obama looks ahead to 2013 and the beginning of his second White House term, a statement he made 18 months ago describes the stark reality he confronts in trying to exercise presidential leadership.

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Frustrated with the Republican-majority House of Representatives to reach agreement over government revenues and spending back in July 2011, Obama said in a prime-time address: "The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn't vote for a dysfunctional government."

In recent weeks, as the president and House wrangled over proposals to keep the US from taking an economic belly-flop off the so-called "fiscal cliff", dysfunction seemed on conspicuous display. Even a plan crafted personally by House Speaker John Boehner to raise taxes on millionaires failed to muster enough support among his Republican colleagues and never came to a vote.

Despite the President's statement last night that a deal to avert the 'fiscal cliff' was "within sight", much related to financing the government remains unsettled, and Obama's agenda for 2013, let alone beyond, is murky at best. Every policy proposal or administration initiative will face a potential challenge.

UN Ambassador Susan Rice's decision to withdraw from consideration as a candidate for secretary of state illustrates the influence Republican criticism can have on a prospective presidential appointment. Forcing her to stay where she is also served as a warning shot in what promises to be continued jousting over cabinet and other high-level nominations.

At the moment, former Republican senator Chuck Hagel's name is circulating for the next secretary of defence. Opponents from both parties are already questioning the choice, forcing Obama to reconsider Hagel and the battle that might ensue.

But trying to reach a functioning agreement over taxes and spending – especially as they relate to the federal deficit – will be Washington's principal priority in the new year. What wasn't accomplished during the summer of 2011 or in the weeks following the 2012 elections needs to be faced sooner rather than later.

Although any act of compromise is considered sinful in certain political circles, some combination of revenue hikes and funding cuts is essential. Given past failures – remarkably the last time a Republican legislator voted for any income tax increase was 1990 – it's possible public pressure will push for a resolution, especially if the stock market and other indicators begin to signal that not having a deal is having negative consequences on personal finances and job creation.

Another area where both Democrats and Republicans seem poised to act is immigration reform. The Obama administration considers a comprehensive package a legislative imperative, and Congressional Republicans realise that their party's future requires a more welcoming face.

Exit polls after the November elections showed Obama and Democrats winning 71pc of the Hispanic vote compared to 27pc for Mitt Romney and Republicans. Balloting among Asian Americans was similar: 73pc to 26pc. As the US population becomes less white, Republicans must figure out ways to broaden their appeal to be competitive, with support from new citizens a critical first step.

Hurricane Sandy, which devastated sections of the east coast in October, and the recent school massacre in Connecticut open large doors to address climate change and gun control. Both subjects, however, tend to provoke more talk than action, with well-funded interest groups (such as the National Rifle Association) opposed, with feet-in-cement immobility, to changing the status quo.

Shortly after the mass killing in Newtown, Obama created a task force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to propose specific measures for reducing gun violence. How effectively Obama handles potential restrictions to the availability of assault-style weapons and ammunition will be a genuine test of his political strength and skill.

In the international arena, the president faces circumstances of reduced engagement that mirror those at home. Military operations over the past decade in Afghanistan and Iraq substantially elevated the federal debt and made the administration more sensitive to the costly burden of what Thomas Jefferson called "entangling alliances".

Although second-term presidents often look abroad for legacy accomplishments – Bill Clinton's involvement in Northern Ireland during the late 1990s stands out as an example – Obama has yet to identify a foreign issue for sustained focus. He and his national security team keep a cautious eye on China, particularly its military development and impact throughout Asia, and that concern might grow and become a more distinctive feature.

Four years ago, when Obama entered office, a tailwind of hope and change inspired a spirit of national purpose and boundless promise. In 2013, economic and political realities will restrict the horizon of policy possibilities, limiting the range of options for this president and the country he leads.

Robert Schmuhl is Professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Irish Independent

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