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der Tagesspiegel, Germany

The Party’s Over



By Stormy-Annika Mildner & Vanessa Vaughn

Right from the start of his second term, Barack Obama is proving less open to compromise with Congress than before.

Translated By Ron Argentati

22 January 2013

Edited by Lydia Dallett


Germany - der Tagesspiegel - Original Article (German)

President Barack Obama has begun his second term and after a day of celebration it's now “back to business.” The president may have a little more maneuvering room during the next four years and no longer has to think about getting reelected due to the constitutional prohibition against serving more than two terms. Yet so many before him have come to grief in their second terms, thus failing to fulfill the expectations of those who reelected him. Obama knows that danger is especially great for him: November's elections also reaffirmed the principle of divided government with the House remaining in Republican hands and the Senate still controlled by the Democrats.

The political divide between the parties has never been greater. Washington is in crisis.

Obama doesn't want to be a “lame duck,” i.e., a president without power or influence, so he is taking on the role of warrior. Unusual for an inauguration speech, he clearly laid out his political agenda. The national debt, the obsolete immigration laws, the lack of effective gun laws and climate change are the major points the president hopes to address.

To accent how serious he is, he has already unveiled his push for increased gun controls. On January 16, he revealed his proposed legislation in which he asks for a prohibition on assault rifles, high-capacity magazines holding more than ten bullets, as well as the introduction of obligatory background checks for gun purchases designed to eliminate “straw-man” sales loopholes. These are all measures sure to run into opposition in Congress – and not just in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. Some Democrats in the Senate have also shown concerns about strengthening gun control laws.

From Compromise to Strategic Confrontation

Because Obama and his White House staff know that getting legislation through both houses of Congress will be difficult, the president has signed 23 Executive Orders designed to reduce gun violence which require no congressional approval.

Obama's harder stance is also evident in the ongoing battle over budget reform due to enter the second phase in late February or early March. He announced there would be no negotiations over the debt ceiling and informed Speaker of the House John Boehner that should the debt ceiling talks fail, he would ensure that the American public knew that the Republicans were to blame.

In addition to substantive issues, Obama signaled his readiness to go to the mat over his personnel selections. His choice of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense unleashed a wave of displeasure among Republicans who accused him of being against Israel and unwilling to consider military action to halt Iran's nuclear programs. But the Democrats favor the moderate Republican who they hope will help Obama get difficult reductions in the defense budget through Congress.

Mobilizing the Population

Such a confrontational stance by the president has not been evident in the past two years. He took criticism from some in his own party that he was too unwilling to stand up to the Republicans and therefore avoided putting forth any legislation that might draw congressional fire. Obama wanted to forgo moral victories in favor of getting results even if that meant settling for weak compromises. That is now about to change.

And Obama learned one other lesson. During his first term, he was unable to clearly communicate his political priorities to the public and also to sell his accomplishments as such. As a result, his first term was judged almost exclusively by the nation's economic performance, something that resulted in lower approval ratings from the public. The closer the 2010 elections came, the less Democrats were likely to support Obama's reform initiatives and possibly endanger their own chances for reelection. That fear bore little fruit as the Democrats lost the House of Representatives to the Republicans anyway.

Now Obama wants to mobilize the electorate. Many are already talking about a governing style "à la Ronald Reagan" who understood how to use public opinion to support his legislative priorities. This is where Obama's old campaign team can be useful. He wants to tamp down the influence exerted by lobbyists on the shaping of legislation.

In view of the grave problems facing the United States, the course of the last two years cannot be sustained. Not since 1947 has the nation had to endure such an unproductive Congress. Public approval of Congress now stands at 14 percent, a historical low point. Three-fourths of Americans are convinced that Washington's policies are damaging the nation. Obama's confrontational strategy can succeed if he's able to rally public support for his initiatives and provided his party does its duty and supports even unpopular initiatives as well.



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