Clock starts to tick for vital second term tasks

Tue, Jan 22, 2013, 00:00

Analysis:Obama faces major challenges as the temporary goodwill of Republicans fades

As soon as the inaugural party draws to a close and the truce between the Democratic White House and Republican Congress called for the four-day event ends, the political wrangling and bitter partisanship will reignite.

The coming months will determine Barack Obama’s second-term capacity to drive through the ambitious legislative changes signposted in his 18-minute inaugural speech yesterday.

The acrimony between Obama and the Republican-led House of Representatives over a deal to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” of spending cuts and tax increases, towards the end of last year, is likely to erupt again over a deal to raise the country’s $16.4 trillion borrowing limit so the US can pay its upcoming bills.

Relations between the parties have been poor for two years now and the sides will not be drawn together by the cross-the-political-divide goodwill shown as Democrats and Republicans dined over a luncheon of steamed lobster, hickory grilled bison and apple pie in the Capitol yesterday.

The president acknowledged the battle ahead with Republican leaders over immediate challenges without referring to the next fiscal crisis facing his administration in February and March.

Time to act

“For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” he said. “We must act, we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial.”

Republican leaders in the House reached out to Obama last Friday by proposing an extension to borrowing for three months but refused to back off from demands to cut spending.

The Republican House speaker John Boehner refused to accept any long-term increase in the debt ceiling until the Democratic-controlled Senate adopts a budget plan that includes cuts to government spending.

The GOP hopes it can extract spending cuts from Obama during looming budget battles when sequestration-related or automatic spending cuts are set to kick in on March 1st and the continuing resolution that funds government expires on March 27th.

The resolution of the fiscal cliff crisis last month in which Republicans reluctantly caved in to tax increases for those earning more than $450,000 a year has added to the hostility shown to the reinaugurated president by the Republicans.

The entrenched positions raise the prospect of a succession of cliffs, and not just of a fiscal nature, as Obama attempts to introduce legislation to reform immigration and control gun ownership after the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

The personal nature of the campaign against Obama’s plans for gun controls, in which the secret service security given to his daughters was raised by the gun lobby, is a glimpse of the nature of the fight ahead.

Immigration reform may have greater success as Republicans accept, following the president’s re-election on a strong Hispanic vote, that there must be agreement in this area or the GOP will lose support among Latino constituents.

Obama needs to score some successes on job creation and growth figures if he is to restore stalling public confidence in an economic recovery.

Foreign policy will inevitably absorb much of the president’s early second-term focus as the conflict in Syria rages and a growing militant Islamic threat emerges in Africa.

The re-election of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has a frosty relationship with Obama, could raise tensions further, particularly if the two clash on the Palestinians and a possible Israeli military strike on Iran.

At home, the president must move quickly to cash in on the political capital from his strong re-election victory, knowing that he spent much of it from his historic first election win fighting for the economic stimulus plan and the reform of healthcare insurance.

Honeymoon

Second-term presidents traditionally enjoy a post-inauguration honeymoon period of up to eight months but Mr Obama’s battles with the GOP have shortened this considerably. “Days in your second term are in many ways more important than in your first,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer told the Washington Post this week.

Campaigning for the 2014 midterm elections begins in the autumn, leaving Mr Obama with a narrow window in which to push through his packed agenda of legislative reforms.

Congress will be unwilling to take on any hot political issues after the summer before they set out their stall for voters.

In the way of election cycles the next race will begin in early 2015 or even earlier if vice-president Joe Biden decides not to run, opening up the race to a plethora of prospective early candidates.

This will eat into Obama’s capacity to legislate further as the run for the presidency in 2016 escalates and leaves him with about 18 months to introduce the changes underpinning the message of his address.

In other words, he must make the most of what little post-inaugural political goodwill there may be and move quickly to avoid being another second-term lame duck like so many predecessors.