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Les Echos, France

Obama’s Momentum Will
Test a Locked Congress

By Karl de Meyer

Translated By Michelle Boone

12 February 2013

Edited by Kyrstie Lane


France - Les Echos - Original Article (French)

During his first term, Obama sought primarily to fix the economic crisis. During the second, he clearly wants to change American society.

After a relatively short inauguration speech on Jan. 21, tonight Barack Obama will give his State of the Union address, which, according to William Galston of the Brookings Institute, "will be regarded as the framing speech for his second term,” while the inauguration was “the last speech of his election campaign.”

Even if tonight’s speech focuses on an economy still too lifeless to overcome an obstinate unemployment rate, President Obama will not fail to mention projects that have already been put into action, with the idea that if they lead to success they will become an important legacy of his presidency. During his first term he mainly sought to avoid the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, but over the course of the second he clearly wants to change American society. Now the question is: What are his chances of succeeding?

One thing is certain: He wants to move quickly. Three months after his re-election and three weeks after his inauguration, he has already launched ambitious reforms that are in tune with public opinion. One example is immigration, which is a troublesome issue: Two attempts at reform in the past six years have failed. It is estimated that there are currently 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. A set of proposals made by a bipartisan group of senators was well received. They allow for a naturalization process by means of the payment of a fine and back taxes. Illegal immigrants must prove that they speak English, have worked and, of course, that they have never committed a serious crime. As compensation for a reform that they would have had difficulty accepting a few months ago, Republicans received tougher border controls and a better export control system, particularly in ports and overland.

Then there is gun control, a continuing issue that the Newtown massacre brought front and center once again. Since mid-January Barack Obama has presented a comprehensive plan of action. He needs Congress to ensure that all arms sales are registered and that assault weapons and large capacity magazines are banned.

There is also the struggle against climate change. In this case, there is not yet a proposal on the table, but there is a clearly expressed political will. In the inaugural address, this was the most detailed and highlighted point. According to the American press, the president must revisit this tonight, presenting the development of renewable energy and green technologies not only as a means of combating global warming but also as a means of creating jobs and stimulating the economy.

Barack Obama has the support of public opinion on these three projects. Of course, opinion polls vary widely from one study to another, but the trends are in the White House's favor. According to a recent Gallup poll, 72 percent of Americans approve the establishment of a nationalization procedure for illegal immigrants who fit certain criteria. The president even has the support — and this is new — of unions and employers. On firearms, the emotions evoked by the Newtown massacre have led 56 percent of Americans to approve a ban on assault rifles. Finally, according to a Duke University poll, 50 percent of Americans are convinced that the climate is changing, and 34 percent say that it is “probably” changing. Nearly two-thirds are in favor of new regulations on factory and auto emissions. The fires and drought of last summer, followed by Hurricane Sandy, made an impression in everyone’s mind.

Still, none of this will be easy. First, the “honeymoon” of the president and the American people risks being short-lived. In the latest polls, only a small majority (52 percent) of citizens approve of his actions against 41 percent who disapprove. The “honeymoon period” between newly elected presidents and public opinion is becoming shorter and shorter, says Gallup. Because the country is increasingly divided, presidents begin their terms with lower ratings than before. With the explosion of new media and the bi-polarization of traditional media, everything moves faster, and everything is short-lived, including grace periods.

The situation in Congress, in particular, remains tense. Of course, Republicans understand that they risk losing the Latino vote for good if they put pressure on the issue of illegal immigration; however, there are a certain number of GOP politicians who do not feel bound by party principles. They know that this subject is sensitive within their constituency, and they are already thinking of future elections. This same logic applies to other issues. Barack Obama's tone, which has been very offensive and not at all conciliatory over the course of the past several weeks, has irritated more than one Republican. On firearms he will be forced to rely on the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobbies in the country. As for climate change, he will have to compromise with the interests of the industry at a moment when it is benefiting from a windfall thanks to shale gas and unconventional fuels.

If Barack Obama really does want to make an impression during the course of his second term, his most brilliant success would be to fix a blocked Congress, which years of polls have shown Americans despise.



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