As he revels in his second public inauguration, the president knows his legacy lies at the end of a number of perilous paths
Barack Obama was officially sworn in as president for a second term at noon on Sunday, in a White House ceremony that was relatively quiet, compared with the one that will take place with hundreds of thousands lining the Mall on Monday.
It would have been a major disappointment in November for many Americans, not least African-Americans, if the first black president had only been given one term. The breakthrough in racial relations would have been tainted by rejection. Instead, Obama has been given a chance to build his legacy and to be remembered for more than being just the first black president.
While Republicans decry his first term as a disaster, his supporters claim he has already built a formidable legacy. Obama helped guide America out of its worst economic recession since the 1930s and introduced legislation that had defeated his Democratic predecessors, at least since LBJ – a significant move towards universal healthcare.
On top of that, he ended the Bush-era sanctioning of torture, recognised the rights of gays to openly serve in the military and to marry, and provided legal cover for a young undocumented workers.
Ross Baker, a politics professor at Rutgers who has served on the staffs of both Democratic and Republican senators, sees Obama as having done enough to achieve inclusion on the list of great presidents – if not up with the great greats, such as Lincoln or FDR, then high in the second tier, better than Kennedy or Clinton.
The challenge facing Obama in a second term? “He will strive to rekindle the excitement of the first term which is a difficult objective to achieve,” Baker said. “His first term is a difficult act to follow. I could not imagine anything of the magnitude of Obamacare or Dodd-Frank [the legislation on financial regulation]. He would do well to get over the debt [and] spending obstacles with his dignity intact.”
So what should we expect on Monday? Is Obama, having disappointed with his inaugural speech in January 2009, going to mark the start of his second term with some of the soaring rhetoric that is his trademark? Having tried to dampen expectations last time around, is he now going to try to raise them?
This was not even on the agenda in the November election. In spite of a series of shooting sprees in Obama’s first term, it took the Newtown school shooting, in which 20 young children and six adults were killed, to persuade the president to make gun control a second-term priority.
Last Wednesday, Obama called on Congress to pass as a matter of urgency legislation to ban automatic weapons, reduce the size of magazines to 10 bullets and tighten up background checks for buyers.
The chances of getting through an automatic weapons ban or a reduction in the size of magazines are remote, given that the Republicans control the House. Even in the Senate, which the Democrats hold, enthusiasm for gun control is weak. The Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, risks his own seat in Nevada if he backs significant restrictions, as well as the seats of about half a dozen of his colleagues, effectively costing the Democrats their majority.
The likelihood is that Congress will back tightening up rules on gun buyers. Along with the executive actions Obama made this week to increase research into gun violence and appoint a new head of the federal firearms bureau, the White House might have to settle for this.
This would be a huge change for America, which has an estimated 11 million undocumented workers, the majority from Central and South America. Although essential to the economy and doing much of the low-paid work others decline to do, illegal immigrants are still denounced by some Americans for having broken the law by entering the country without papers. Many such critics hint darkly about mass deportations, even though this is privately acknowledged as impractical.
Having won in November with the support of two-thirds of Latino voters, Obama has to try to deliver on immigration reform, not least to cement the Latino population to the Democratic party for years to come.
The Republicans killed proposed Ted Kennedy-John McCain reforms in the Bush era and the 2010 Dream Act that would have created a path to citizenship. After Mitt Romney’s defeat in November, though, they seem finally to have acknowledged the realities of changing demographics. One of the GOP’s rising stars, Marco Rubio, who is of Cuban descent, has backed a plan that has some similarities to that being proposed by Obama.
Republicans will find it hard to swallow the idea of rewarding people who moved to the US illegally, however. Citizenship measures will struggle to get through the House. But there is enough common ground – and political self-interest – for Democrats and Republicans to unite behind some reform.
Although the “Obamacare” legislation was passed in 2010 and some measures have been implemented, the changes are not scheduled to start until 2014. If Obama had not been elected, the legislation faced being slowly dismantled. Obama now has the chance to embed it.
The president has told supporters that he regards Obamacare as his biggest legacy, taking away the fear of being unable to pay for treatment for millions more people and making a major step in the battle against poverty.
From 2014, people previously without any health insurance will have to participate or pay a penalty.
Obama does not want his second term to be dominated by showdown after showdown with House Republicans. Buoyed by his second election win and polls showing a rise in his approval ratings, however, he appears more willing to take on the Republicans than he was first time round.
Against this background, he warned the Republicans after the fiscal cliff crisis in December and early January that he would not negotiate over the debt-ceiling limit, the next potential crisis which was due to hit in February or early March. He gave them an ultimatum: either pass it or take the blame for closing the government down.
The Republicans seem to have blinked, proposing a bill to go before Congress in the coming days that will extend the debt limit for a further three months.
Obama also appears prepared to do a deal with the Republicans on spending cuts to reduce the deficit and is open to Republican proposals for cutting back welfare benefits, even in the face of Democratic opposition.
It is in Obama’s interest to heap the blame for much of what is wrong in Washington on to the House Republicans. If he can achieve this, the Democrats have a hope of winning back the House in 2014.
With both the House and Senate in Democratic hands, Obama would be well placed in his final two years – even at a time when the focus traditionally switches to the presidential race and his potential successors – to secure further legislative changes.
But it is just as likely that something unexpected will surface – an economic downturn or a foreign policy disaster – causing Obama’s present ratings to plummet and taking with it the Democrats’ chances in 2014 and for the White House in 2016.
Obama’s biggest foreign policy challenge remains Iran. There is the risk that in the next four years the issue will come to a head, with Iran either achieving a nuclear weapons capability or Israel, no longer willing to take the risk, launching air strikes.
But there are alternatives. The US could enter into direct talks with the Iranians; Tehran might decide to stop just short of a nuclear weapons capability; or sanctions might force the Iranian government into compromise.
By at least the end of 2014, most American combat troops will have left Afghanistan, so the two wars Obama inherited from George W Bush will be over, at least from a US perspective. Although that will still leave Pakistan and the controversial drone attacks.
And will Obama finally commit time and political capital to trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? That could be one for his new secretary of state, the Democratic senator John Kerry, assuming he passes through the Senate nomination hearings unscathed, as seems likely. Former Republican Chuck Hagel as defense secretary faces a tougher time but, with the backing of Democrats, he should also make it through.
In surprise move, GOP lawmakers show first signs of backing down over debt crisis by giving Congress time to pass a budget
Republicans showed the first sign of backing down over the looming debt ceiling crisis on Friday, in the face of relentless pressure from President Barack Obama.
Congressional Republicans, who only last week had been threatening to close down the federal government, emerged from closed-door negotiations at a party retreat to announce they will present a bill next week to increase the debt limit by a further three months.
The White House gave the move a cautious welcome to the news.
It is an unexpected bonus for Obama just days before the start of his second presidential term, and gives him breathing space so that instead of another showdown between White House and Republicans in Congress at the end of next month or in March, the issue could be pushed back until summer.
Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader in the House, said: “Next week, we will authorise a three-month temporary debt limit increase to give the Senate and House time to pass a budget.”
The GOP came close to closing down the federal government in 2011 when they initially refused to raise the debt ceiling.
A messy compromise was eventually worked out. But Obama said earlier this month, after yet another economic showdown, he would not negotiate with the Republicans over the debt limit.
Obama, ramping up pressure on opponents in Congress, held a press conference at the White House on Monday, warning them that if they were not prepared to raise the ceiling, then they would have to take the blame for government closing down.
Obama’s strategy appears to have worked, with the Republicans worried about the electoral consequences of government grinding to a halt, which would mean hundreds of thousands of people – from welfare recipients to veterans – no longer receiving their cheques, federal staff going on forced leave and agency after agency being shut down.
The Republican cave-in was announced from their retreat near Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, where they have been discussing overall strategy in the wake of the November elections.
In what appears to be a political gimmick, the Republicans are to attach to the bill extending the debt limit for three months clauses that would see members of Congress have their pay withheld unless they can reach agreement on a separate issue: a budget that cuts spending.
The Republicans had been using the debt ceiling crisis as leverage to try to force Obama into accepting deep spending cuts, particularly in welfare.
Cantor, in a statement, said of the proviso in next week’s bill about the three-month extension: “If the Senate or House fails to pass a budget in that time, members of Congress will not be paid by the American people for failing to do their job. No budget, no pay.”
The Republicans are banking on the idea of members’ losing their pay being popular with voters.
But both the White House and the Democratic leadership in the Senate dismissed the idea, saying they wanted a “clean bill”, focused solely on raising the debt ceiling.
The White House, in a statement, said: “The president has made clear that Congress has only two options: pay the bills they have racked up, or fail to do so and put our nation into default.
“We are encouraged that there are signs that congressional Republicans may back off their insistence on holding our economy hostage to extract drastic cuts in Medicare, education and programs middle class families depend on. Congress must pay its bills and pass a clean debt limit increase without further delay. And as he has said, the president remains committed to further reducing the deficit in a balanced way.”
The Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, said if the House passes a clean bill raising the debt ceiling, even temporarily, the Senate would be happy to consider it.
A spokesman said Reid saw the move as the Republicans beginning to back off from their threat to “hold our economy hostage”.
Separate from the debt ceiling, a deal on spending is within reach. Obama has already agreed to consider changes to the index that determines welfare benefits, something the Republicans have been pushing for but Democrats have resisted, and to raise the age at which Medicare kicks in, another Republican proposal.
He and the Republican House speaker, John Boehner, are not too far apart either over a global figure for spending cuts.
Signing orders makes a good photo op, but the president needs a broad coalition and busy campaign to get laws past Congress
President Obama’s press conference on gun violence is being hailed as “sweeping” and “the biggest gun-control push in generations”.
The president announced 23 executive actions, which he admits “are in no way a substitute for action from members of Congress”. He then proposed Congress “must act soon” on universal background checks on gun purchases, limiting high-capacity magazines, and restoring the ban on so-called assault weapons.
Should we expect any of this to actually pass?
Anyone who thinks this is a slam-dunk is kidding themselves. Any gun control legislation would have to pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
But you already thought of that. More interesting is the fact that Senate Democrats will likely pose an even bigger hurdle.
Still scarred from overreaching on this issue a decade ago, in 2014 Democrats will have to defend Senate seats in states like Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina and South Dakota. (Until recently, West Virginia would have been on this list; Senator Jay Rockefeller’s decision to retire only serves to reinforce this message.)
Do we really think Harry Reid wants to put his vulnerable Senate members on the line by having them cast a tough vote that might be moot anyway, if the House rejects the legislation?
On the other hand, Newtown does seem to have resonated more than past shootings. Meanwhile, from a ridiculously mishandled press conference, to producing an unwisely conceived video mentioning President Obama’s daughters, to releasing an ill-advised target-shooting video game app, the National Rifle Association seems to be, well, shooting itself in the foot. It’s almost as if they’re trying to help Obama.
What is more, the White House might have powerful allies in this fight. As I’ve noted, they appear to be attempting to co-opt “stakeholders” like Walmart (the largest gun retailer in the nation).
Just as the White House enlisted Big Pharma to pass Obamacare, enlisting a big business with red state bona fides – as opposed to the effete, big city brand of, say, a Michael Bloomberg – would certainly provide cover for red state Democrats. And that would dramatically increase the odds of passing something.
Why might Walmart play along? For one thing, a law requiring universal background checks – closing the so-called “gun show loophole” – would presumably be good for the bottom line.
Pushing for the return of an assault weapons ban is probably a bridge too far, politically. It didn’t have an appreciable impact, in terms of curbing gun violence, after Bill Clinton championed it in the 1990s, but it did lead to more gun sales – and more Democratic loses. As liberal Bill Scher concedes, over at the New Republic:
“Obama doesn’t need an assault weapons ban.”
Assuming congressional leaders craft legislation that pushes for background checks and banning high-capacity magazines, even that would require running an actual campaign. President Obama would have to enlist a disparate coalition of stakeholders and political leaders, and probably also barnstorm the nation to sell it. (And if it passed, groups like the NRA would still to continue to lobby against the law, though perhaps not competently.)
It won’t be easy. The smart money’s still on stasis, but the unknown factor remains how much Newtown has changed the political environment.
The nation would have to be convinced this is not a liberal scheme to slouch down a slippery slope toward universal registration, leading inexorably, in the minds of second amendment advocates, to confiscation. Instead, they will have to be persuaded that this really is a common-sense approach to keeping our kids safe.