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Obama and the next four years

8th November 2012

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Despite months of an unrelenting onslaught of infighting, fundraising, negative advertising and gaffes, with scrutiny focusing in on the three electorally vital swing states of Ohio, Virginia and Florida, America has given an almost identical result to the one it gave the world four years ago.

It wasn’t nearly as emphatic as 2008, with just around 2% separating the two candidates in the popular vote, but with only Indiana and North Carolina ceding to the Republicans, Obama crossed the magic 270 electoral vote line relatively comfortably.

The gloss from Obama’s historic election has peeled away over the past four years from a President who has had an almost impossible task in uniting a country that is ever increasingly polarized. He promised a change in tone from the bi-partisan divides that have shaped Washington and to reach across the aisle to Republicans in order to aid America’s recovery.

The Republicans weren’t quite as welcoming to the idea, meaning that when they regained the House of Representatives in the 2010 mid-terms, they brought legislation passage to a standstill. While the Democrats have an improved position in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the House still remains in Republican hands due to the unusual habit of split-ticket voting amongst the American electorate. It leaves Obama with a tricky second term in which his legacy will be decided by the pace of the economic recovery, the implementation of his healthcare plan and also by the doctrine he adopts in foreign policy after an unexpectedly hawkish first term, while immigration is expected to come to the fore in his plans for domestic reform.

This was an election that was primarily fought on the state of an economy, that while has been improving, has recovered at a pace that has worn down the patience of a middle class that has been squeezed since the economy’s collapse in 2008. Despite unemployment being at 7.9%, Obama has survived this referendum on his economic performance possibly by the fact that while unemployment remains high it has been steadily dropping and similar to Reagan’s re-election in 1984, when unemployment was also stubbornly slow in decreasing, Americans see that there is improvement and to jeopardize it now would be a risky endeavour. But while it was an election focused on this issue, it was also an issue where details and substance were lacking. Expected over the next four years is the same mix of stimulus packages and selective tax cuts that took place in his first term but what makes Obama’s re-election so crucial is the fact that a new deal must be made over America’s upcoming ‘fiscal cliff’. The fiscal cliff is a name given to the combination of the end of Bush-era tax cuts and the beginning of major spending cuts in areas like defence and Medicare. A deal must be struck before January 2013 to rectify the deadlock but due to the current balance within Congress it will have to be a deal that pleases both sides of the House, a difficult prospect for Obama to wake up to especially when just two months remain. Obama is set to argue that Tuesday’s victory gives him the legitimate mandate to press on with his preferred budget. The previous four years should tell him it will never be that easy.

One area where the President doesn’t need to rely on Congress to progress is in Foreign policy. Traditionally it has been an area in which the Republicans have dominated the scene with their boisterous hawkism coming across as a more proactive method of defeating America’s foreign enemies. Surprisingly despite winding up the war in Iraq and putting in place a timetable to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2014, Obama’s foreign policy has been at times aggressive, ruthless and seemingly contradictory. While contradictory to some, pragmatic to others, Obama’s foreign policy does seem to focus exclusively on concluding the wars that stem from Bush’s Presidency. The fact that he briefly surged troops in Afghanistan and has picked off some of Al-Qaeda’s leaders in a less than savoury manner could be seen to echo the foreign policy of his predecessor but his appeasement of Iran, the cooling of diplomatic relations with Israel and his (although delayed) support of the Arab Spring shows a President keen on ending American resentment in the region.

But while the economy and foreign policy were key to this election in both providing ammunition to a divided Republican party with a weak candidate in Mitt Romney and also giving enough example of leadership in crisis to drag Obama over the finishing line, they are very much issues of their time. Recession and war won’t be the lasting legacy from the Obama administration when history evaluates his time in the Oval Office, it will the domestic reform that show a shift ideologically to the left that will dominate thought on his eight years in office.

Obama’s healthcare plan has survived a Supreme Court ruling and has now escaped the prospect of repeal in the election as well; all that remains is the implementation of the plan in 2014 which remains surprisingly unpopular within the US. This is despite the clear benefits of the plan, with the administration admitting there has been a breakdown in the communication of ideas in relation to the plan, meaning it has been perceived negatively despite it covering millions who would face bankruptcy if taken ill.  Another area, that was side-tracked by healthcare during the first term of his Presidency is immigration, which could take special precedence when considering how important the Latino vote was in Obama’s re-election and how dominant Obama was amongst Latino voters. The reform proposed is called the DREAM act which helps undocumented immigrants living in the US the chance to become citizens without the fear of deportation. It has stalled in Congress but the hope within the Latino community is that it becomes a priority of Obama’s during his second term after being disappointed by the lack of major immigration reform during his first term.

Historically Obama’s re-election can be considered to be a rarity when compared to previous incumbent Presidents struggling economically, but it can be seen that the signs of recovery that have been slowly building over the past year have handed Obama a second term. While there feels almost an inevitability about an economic recovery, there is no guarantee it comes any easier or any sooner than it began to during his first term, especially when considering the battle he faces in the coming months over the upcoming ‘fiscal cliff’. His legacy will undoubtedly come in finally providing America with a more withdrawn, isolationist role in foreign policy and evading conflict with Congress and implementing lasting substantial domestic reform in health and immigration. Four more years could prove to be the stretch too far.


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