A shot at glory: President Obama's second chance

He can use the next four years to tackle some of the US's worst problems – if only the Republicans will let him

Share
Related Topics

Last week was the easy bit, winning an election. Now Barack Obama faces six weeks of brinkmanship with Republicans that could decide whether his second term rounds off one of the great transformative US presidencies – or descends into an acrimonious exercise in futility.

Yesterday, it was almost as if his trouncing of Mitt Romney four days earlier had never happened, as both sides dug in for negotiations over a deficit-reduction deal without which automatic spending cuts and tax increases will kick in at the start of 2013. This so-called "fiscal cliff" would cause the US economy, and perhaps the entire global economy, to plunge into a new recession.

Normally so clear-cut an electoral victory would give the winning incumbent a clear mandate for his policies – in the President's case, the tax increases for those making over $250,000 that were a theme of his campaign. But despite the pressure to rethink policies rejected by the voters, Republicans sound as intransigent as they did throughout Mr Obama's first term. This is despite losing not only the White House last Tuesday but also seats in the Senate of which they hoped to retake control, and in the House of Representatives where their majority has been reduced.

Both sides are calling for compromise. But neither is giving an inch. On Capitol Hill a flurry of backstage contacts is under way between congressional leaders to explore possible areas of agreement. On Friday, however, John Boehner, the House Speaker, said passage of a bill increasing taxes on the rich was "unacceptable", while Mr Obama vowed to veto any bill that failed to do so.

Doors are not yet being slammed, and common ground could yet be found by closing loopholes that benefit the rich, but technically are not tax increases. But even then, Democrats would have to accept a slowdown in the growth of costly entitlement programmes that would upset the party's liberal wing. The price of failure, however, would be higher still.

Second terms are usually low-key affairs. But this one has the potential to be a resplendent exception, with the chance of progress on issues that have bedevilled the country for decades. For the next two years, unencumbered by the need to worry about future elections, Mr Obama will have a rare freedom of action. Only after the 2014 midterms will serious lameduck-itis set in.

The President's first term produced the most sweeping healthcare reform in almost 50 years. Now, if a deficit deal can be struck, setting the country on a stable financial path, other major achievements seem within reach. First among them is immigration reform where, stunned by their dismal performance this week among minorities and Hispanics, Republicans are sounding newly conciliatory. Mr Boehner now says the time is ripe for "comprehensive" reform that would give illegal immigrants and their families a path to citizenship.

With Republicans on the back foot, Mr Obama has an opportunity to take serious action on climate change, an issue avoided in the campaign. He can hone education legislation, and oversee overdue changes to simplify the tax code, and narrow the disparities between rich and poor.

While middle-class earnings have stagnated, the concentration of wealth at the top in the US is greater than at any time since the 1929 crash. Wall Street and superwealthy donors poured vast sums into the Romney campaign, but to no avail. There, too, Mr Obama has a mandate.

The national mood is also improving. More than 40 per cent of Americans say the country is now on the right track: not exactly a ringing endorsement of the status quo, but twice the number of a year ago. An improving economy can only strengthen the President's hand.

The Supreme Court may offer further opportunity. Four of the nine justices are well into their seventies. If one or two retire, Mr Obama will be able to inject young blood into the court's liberal wing.

One problem Mr Obama will not avoid, however: the departure of senior officials and trusted advisers. Hillary Clinton is set to leave in the coming weeks, as are Leon Panetta from the Pentagon and Timothy Geithner from the Treasury.

If his first term is any guide, this President won't get bogged down in scandal, so often the bane of his re-elected predecessors. Watergate finished Richard Nixon, Iran-Contra almost floored Ronald Reagan, and the Monica Lewinsky affair led to Bill Clinton's impeachment.

Possibly the greatest danger lies in Mr Obama's own character. Governing requires immense investment in personal relations, sometimes with political foes. But he is not a schmoozer like Bill Clinton, nor a cajoler/bully like Lyndon Johnson. For the next two years at least, one half of Capitol Hill will be Republican. A decent Boehner/Obama working relationship is essential – more golf anyone?

Mr Obama served only four years in the Senate, two of which he spent on the campaign trail. He is not instinctively attuned to its rhythms and vagaries. The risk is that he tries to stand above the battle, a rational man who assumes reason and common sense will prevail. If the Republicans' scorched-earth tactics of the first term have taught him anything, it's that too often they don't.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock, whose expression was coveted by Alex Salmond as a young man  

Leonard Nimroy: Why Spock was the blackest person on the Enterprise

Bonnie Greer
 

Leonard Nimroy: Spock made me feel like it was good to be the weird kid

Matthew James
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?