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Les Echos, France

Obama: Why the Second Term
Might Be a Letdown

By Lucie Robequain

Translated By Louis Standish

8 January 2013

Edited by Kyrstie Lane

France - Les Echos - Original Article (French)

The day after the budget psychodrama, it already seems clear that the president will not be able to complete any initiatives as ambitious as his 2009 health care bill.

Obama’s second term in the White House has not even started yet. It will officially begin on Jan. 21 with an inaugural speech on the steps of the Capitol. The two months following his election provided a good taste of what to expect in the next four years. The budgetary psychodrama that ended on the night of Jan. 1 ended any hope of seeing Congress move in a spirit of reform and compromise. If one thing is immediately obvious, it is that the president will not be able to complete any initiatives as ambitious as his 2009 bill on health care. “He is assuredly going to make less reforms in the next four years. Don’t forget that in order to vote on Obamacare, he had benefitted from the alignment of many extremely favorable elements,” says Robert Shapiro, a political science professor from Columbia University.* In the Senate, he had notably benefitted from a 60 percent supermajority that prevented the Republicans from blocking anything. This majority was lost in 2010 and seriously complicated things later on.

Optimism seems less likely now that relations between Republicans and Democrats have soured further in recent weeks. Should Congress or the president be held responsible? David Brooks, a center-right columnist for the New York Times, rails, “Most of the blame still has to go to the Republicans. They’ve had a brain freeze since the election. They have no strategy. They don’t know what they want. They haven’t decided what they want.” Nevertheless, the fault is shared. Barack Obama led with a strategy that left a lot of people stunned. “He couldn’t start off his second term any worse,” David Schultz of Hamline University concludes.*

Why? Because the compromise reached on the budget impasse is not really a compromise. It leaves the Republicans knocked down and makes any future concessions unlikely between the two camps. Bipartisan agreement is, however, an old tradition in the United States: “George Bush put his hand out to Democrats when negotiating on the bank bailouts. Ronald Reagan did the same with retirements and Bill Clinton on the free trade zone in North America. All of these presidents had the smarts to sort out the merits of both sides,” says Keith Hennessey, a former advisor for George Bush.* There is nothing like that here. Barack Obama has demonstrated a rare aggressiveness toward Republicans, even going on to humiliate them after an agreement was reached. “Keep in mind that just last month Republicans in Congress said they would never agree to raise tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. Obviously, the agreement that's currently being discussed would raise those rates and raise them permanently,” he slipped out in front of a beaming crowd. It is effectively a good victory for the Democratic president, who put two years of low taxes to an end and also honors one of his campaign’s biggest promises. But we can blame him for not having much modesty. David Brooks sums up that Obama “sometimes…governs like a visitor from a morally superior civilization. He hasn’t built the trust [with the Republicans].”

Can it happen? The answer is no. In the coming weeks, he will have to guarantee support from the Republicans in order to raise the debt ceiling, without which the state will no longer be able to pay its bills. That could very well be the time for his adversaries to get their revenge. They are especially going to take advantage of this new power struggle in order to negotiate a reduction of social services. “I now fear that we are heading toward a crisis that can dwarf what we’ve just been through,” predicts Robert Greenstein, president of the left-wing think tank Budget and Policy Priorities.

The energy expended on this budget saga is lost from efforts to lead other reforms to good. However, Barack Obama does not lack any ambition. On firearms, for example, it counts to look past what Bill Clinton did in 1994: Moreover, to prevent assault weapons, he hopes to establish a mental health test for buyers and a monitoring of the movements of weapons in the country, the Washington Post reported on Sunday. In light of recent weeks, there are numerous experts who doubt the capacity to hash out a compromise: “The regulation of firearms is still less consensual than the debt question. If the president isn’t capable of negotiating on the second subject, we do not see how he could come to do it on the first,” David Schultz observes.*

Nevertheless, the impasse is not complete: There remain two areas where consensus in Washington is possible, even probable. The first is on immigration. Barack Obama could open the way to sorting out the 11 million undocumented aliens currently living in the United States. Business demands it, with a megaphone like the powerful Wall Street Journal, which does not yet make a habit of supporting Barack Obama. Republicans, who only saw 30 percent of Latinos vote for them in November, also turn to them for a compromise: “They are terrified of the Hispanic demographic! If they refuse to adapt, they know that their electoral base will soon be totally over with the Democrats,” observes Robert Shapiro.* The second glimmer of hope comes in foreign policy. “This is the type of subject on which Americans still find themselves,” the professor from Columbia University wants to believe.* Regarding Iran, which could obtain nuclear arms before summer, or regarding the Syrian issue, it is in any case exactly what one would wish from the first world power for this new year.

*Editor’s Note: These quotations, accurately translated, could not be verified.



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