Obama’s Second and Final Act
By Caio Blinder
Translated By Jane Dorwart
21 January 2013
Edited by Kyrstie Lane
Brazil - Veja - Original Article (Portuguese)
In his short and intense political career, Barack Obama has already defeated formidable foes such as Hillary Clinton (his rival in the Democratic primaries in 2008) and an economic crisis that had everything needed to impede his reelection this past November. He has been lucky to have confronted less formidable Republican rivals such as John McCain and Mitt Romney.
Now in his second term, Obama is facing a formidable enemy: himself. The president will never again run for office and up until now has shown himself to be much better at campaigning than governing. In fact, he prefers campaigning to politics, as if the latter activity were a lesser task.
The risk is that Obama is rooting this talent of his for campaigning into an integral part of governing because it is easier and more advantageous, especially with the demographics on the president's side: His electoral block consists of women, youth, minorities and more sophisticated professional sectors.
There is nothing wrong, on the other hand, in coming down hard on the Republicans. They deserve it and Obama has finally vigorously nailed down his positions, such as being against the absurd Republican posture of using the debt ceiling as blackmail in tax negotiations. Even the lending sectors expressed concern with the irresponsibility and lack of productivity of this political class, particularly the Republicans. It surprises no one that a popular poll showed that the American Congress is less popular than a colonoscopy or lice.
The Republicans are losing political capital by essentially becoming obstructionists. They run the risk of becoming frozen as the party of resentful white Southerners, especially men. However, they do exist. Furthermore, part of the country is not aligned with either of the major parties and never felt the effect of the Obama magic. The Democratic president cannot simply distance himself from the party that has the majority in the House and lead the nation by pressuring them to concretize his agenda.
There are at least some signs of a tactical retreat on the part of the Republicans in the duel with Democrats over the fiscal impasse. The line of the most hard-core wing is "to save a city one must destroy it." The rationale is that it is better to have the economy plunge in the short term in order to fix the more long-term accounts.
Clearly the president and his party would like to corral the Republicans, reinforcing their image as a radical and backward party, so as to reconquer the House in the 2014 elections (the Democrats already control the Senate). Normally a party seeks hegemony based on the rules of democracy, but this will be very difficult for the Democrats in the short term. The redistricting that occurs every ten years favors the status quo. As such, a great wave that could change this is improbable in the next year.
More viable for Obama would be to achieve a "governing majority" in which bipartisan agreements are possible on various urgent matters and other more structural issues. For now, this patch is a remedy for the Democratic minority in the Republican sectors of the House. In the short term the conditions exist for gun control and immigration. In the first case, public opinion seems to favor some form of measures (such as the expansion of restrictions for gun buyers with criminal records.) There are prospects for immigration reform, for example, changing the status of illegal immigrants, as some Republican leaders are aware that the party needs to recycle its image as a bastion of insularity and xenophobia, as was shown by the catastrophic lack of electoral support by Latinos and Asians in November.
Obama's greatest test will be the economy, more specifically the question of taxes and the need to streamline social programs. Here, the president needs to show courage. Since Hurricane Sandy at the end of October, Governor Chris Christie has become aware of Obama's courage. He broke with the orthodoxy of his party and was effusive about the president, demonstrating a bi-partisan spirit. Last week, Christie demonstrated audacity once again and warned that his party should not be held hostage by the National Rifle Association, the arms lobby.
There is another very courageous Republican who broke with party orthodoxy: Tom Coburn. He is a senator from Oklahoma, one of the states most associated with the backwardness of Republicans, with country hicks who question the theory of evolution, doubt global warming and think that "the black helicopters" of the United Nations are arriving.
Coburn was one of the rare Republicans who accepted the need for a large increase in tax revenue even before the fiscal abyss at the end of the year. Now he challenges Obama and the Democrats to take risks in cutting expenses, as he assumed would be the case when supporting the idea of tax increases.
What might move Obama is the need for a legacy. The president does not control events (natural tragedies and international crises,) but inside the White House his priority is to engage a healthier economy. This past week Obama had a meeting with historians and presidential biographers to debate themes such as the lessons of his antecedents.
He encountered similarities and inspiration in the second terms of two presidents: Franklin Roosevelt, who came to office in 1937 for a second term with economic ills after the Great Depression and a stony opposition who considered him to be a socialist and a traitor to his class. Another inspiration was Dwight Eisenhower, the commander of the Allied forces in the Second World War, who at the end of his term in 1961 warned about the dangers of a "military industrial complex."
Obama is correct: The country needs a leaner Pentagon, but it also needs to rethink its social arsenal, and up until now the president has not shown himself to be a warrior on the question of offering significant concessions in healthcare programs and those pertaining to retirement. The president will need courage to confront the "reactionary liberalism" of sectors of the Democratic base, which will not budge from their position on benefits.
Moreover, there are lessons to be learned from two other presidents, the Republican Ronald Reagan and the Democrat Bill Clinton, who knew how to negotiate and close agreements with a warring opposition. Obama now has a second and last chance.
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