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Round 2 begins
January 21, 2013
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Lesley Clark: New term, new hopes

WASHINGTON: Four years ago, President Barack Obama used his inaugural address to declare “an end to the petty grievances, and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
Now as he inaugurates a second term, Obama faces a political climate even more riven by partisan divisions. And they pose sizable hurdles to any success he might hope for in a second term, including an aggressive call for overhauling the nation’s tax and immigration laws and an emerging fight to tighten gun regulations. The honeymoon will be brief.

Obama’s nominees for several top Cabinet posts face confirmation fights. His outgoing secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has been summoned by Congress to answer questions about the Sept.11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, and will appear just two days after Obama’s ceremonial swearing-in at the Capitol.

At the same time, Republicans in the House of Representatives have threatened to shut down the federal government if a vote to raise the debt ceiling is not accompanied by steep spending cuts — one of several looming fiscal fights that could set the tone for the entire second term.

Fiscal opposition

“The fiscal situation is going to constrain the president every which way he turns,” said Ken Duberstein, who served as chief of staff for president Ronald Reagan in his second term. “The trouble is you can’t so poison the atmosphere on the fiscal stuff that it drains whatever political capital you have to do your other priorities.”

Obama has pledged to not negotiate with Republicans who want to use the debt ceiling vote as an opportunity to curtail federal spending, arguing at a news conference last week that the results of the November election show that voters agree with him that spending cuts should be accompanied by tax increases. Republicans argue that voters also elected them to lead the House.

“I don’t think you can hide behind the mandate of re-election in a split government scenario, and certainly that’s a view widely held by House Republicans,” said Phil Musser, a political consultant who works to elect Republicans across the nation. “They feel they are just as entitled to their mandate as the president does to his.”

One agenda item where common ground may be achieved is an ambitious overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.

Republicans fared dismally among Hispanics in the November election and are anxious to “run to catch up,” said Stephen Hess, a former staffer of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter who now studies the presidency at the Brookings Institution. Republicans “pushed aside the largest growing minority group and they see what that means in very real terms,” Hess said.

Obama “expects to move very quickly on immigration after the inauguration” and will outline details in the State of the Union address he’ll deliver Feb.12, spokesman Jay Carney said.

Obama’s proposal is expected to include a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants — perhaps with fines and payment of back taxes — as well as a nationwide system to verify the legal status for workers and a programme allowing more highly skilled immigrants to stay in the country.

Matthew Pennington: Eyeing Asia

Washington: President Barack Obama wants Asia to be a growing focus of his foreign policy, but as his second term begins, success could hinge on his ability to manage hot spots elsewhere in the world and avert a fiscal crisis at home.

Within two weeks of winning re-election, Obama became the first US president to visit Myanmar, signaling his intent to sustain his administration’s “pivot” to the region following the decade-long entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That’s a reflection of Asia’s growing economic and strategic importance. In the past three years, Washington has embroiled itself in diplomacy over the disputed South China Sea, deployed more military-assets to the Asia-Pacific and pushed forward a regional trade pact. It has also put a lot of effort into managing ties with emerging rival China.

Those moves have been broadly welcomed in Asia, but governments question the US ability to sustain its policy.

While Sen. John Kerry, the nominee to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, is expected to continue the policy, the Middle East looks destined to demand the lion’s share of his attention.

Power struggle
There’s no end in sight to the civil war in Syria and pressure could mount to take military action over Iran’s nuclear programme. And it will be tough to enhance the US profile in Asia in an age of austerity. In contrast to China, the US can little afford more aid for its allies and to expand its military presence.

But perhaps most critical to US stature in the region will be how it manages its deep political divisions at home. Failure to resolve the long-running standoff between Obama and Republicans over how to manage America’s $16.4 trillion national debt weighs on global financial markets.

The Republican-controlled House is set to vote on a temporary measure next week that would permit the government to borrow more money to meet its debt obligations for about three months, although it wouldn’t tackle how to reduce the debt.

Without an extension in the debt ceiling, the world’s largest economy could default as soon as mid-February. That would likely prompt a downgrade in the US credit rating, leading to higher borrowing costs in the US and elsewhere. It would alarm creditor governments, such as China and Japan, which both hold more than $1 trillion in US Treasury securities. It could undermine America’s position as a safe haven for investors and trigger economic turmoil.
Associated Press

Rupert Cornwell: Not easy sailing

London: Four bruising years later, all illusions have been banished. Barack Obama’s first term brought great achievements — including a gigantic stimulus package that may have saved the economy from collapse and the most sweeping healthcare reform in 50 years — but only after the most draining battles.

Nothing so visibly speeds the ageing process as being president of the United States. Obama himself is gaunter, his hair is heavily flecked with grey, the old spring in his step no longer quite there.

Nor has history been kind to second terms. That of George W Bush, the most recent, was a virtually unmitigated failure. Before that, Bill Clinton’s second act is mostly remembered for Monica Lewinsky, while Ronald Reagan’s was marred by the Iran-Contra scandal and a growing sense that an old man was losing the plot.

The Obama administration has thus far been remarkably scandal free, while no one suggests this most keenly analytical of presidents, only 51 years old, is losing the plot. But, as with his predecessors, burnout tends to claim the best people who served at the outset — Hillary Clinton is the most notable example this time around.

Less time, more issues

In his second term, Obama will, moreover, have less time to get things done. Immediately after the 2014 mid-terms, if not before, dreaded lame-duckery will set in, as all minds turn to the struggle to succeed him.

But this second term need not be a write-off. For a few months, at least, Obama stands at the pinnacle. True, the hitherto unremittingly hostile Republicans still control the House of Representatives. But his clear-cut victory in November has given him a fresh injection of prestige and authority. He is liberated as well.

There are no more elections to fight, and thus less need to pander to special electoral constituencies. And if the speed and determination with which he is tackling America’s gun crisis are any guide, Obama understands both his opportunity, and how quickly it may vanish.

In fact, two scenarios beckon. Under the first, Obama has a real chance to buck the depressing pattern of second terms. His own first was spent digging out from the Bush disasters, extricating the country from two unpopular and costly wars, and from the deepest recession since the 1930s. Those tasks have been largely accomplished.
The Independent

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