Obama's second term: guns, immigration and Afghanistan
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On the heels of his decisive re-election, US President Barack Obama begins his second term with solid job approval ratings and an ambitious agenda – despite ever-staunch Republican opposition. FRANCE 24 looks at some of the challenges ahead.
Coming off a convincing re-election victory and currently enjoying healthy job approval ratings (around 52 percent), US President Barack Obama has many reasons to feel confident as he prepares to kick off his second term.
But there is also cause for caution.
A tumultuous first four years, filled with bruising battles against the conservative opposition, brought the once wildly popular first African-American president (his approval ratings in early 2009 were at 70 percent) down from his pedestal, giving him a few grey hairs and more than a few enemies in Congress.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives appears determined to continue thwarting the majority of Obama’s legislative priorities. And the president’s efforts to assemble his second-term cabinet have been hindered by controversy – over Susan Rice, his first pick for Secretary of State (the job ended up going to the safer candidate, John Kerry), Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel, and a shortage of racial and gender diversity among his appointments.
Nevertheless, White House insiders have indicated that the president will press ahead with a wide-ranging slate of reforms. Here’s a sneak peek at the major issues Obama will likely tackle – either by choice or out of necessity -- over the next four years.
Budget, debt and spending
This is the perennial conflict that pits Democrats - who want to continue funding programmes, many of which help those hit hardest by the economic crisis - against conservatives, who want to rein in government spending.
Republicans in the House of Representatives originally said they would only raise the federal borrowing limit (known as the “debt ceiling”) if Democrats agreed to immediate spending cuts. But in a favourable turn of events for Obama, they backed off that stance last week, agreeing to raise the debt ceiling for three months – with the stipulation that both Congressional chambers approve a budget in that time to pave the way for talks on long-term deficit reduction.
Obama is set to send Congress a budget blueprint in February, detailing tax and spending proposals for his second term. Faced with House Republicans determined to curb domestic programmes while boosting military spending, he may have a tough fight ahead of him.
The Connecticut school massacre sent gun control directly to the top of Obama’s list of legislative priorities. Following the recommendations of a task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden, Obama has urged Congress to reinstate the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.
He has also pushed them to ban high-capacity (holding more than 10 bullets) magazines and toughen background checks and gun-trafficking laws. Aware that getting his way on guns may be mission impossible, Obama also issued 23 executive orders meant to strengthen and enrich existing laws.
Recent polls show Americans are in favour of tougher gun control laws, and the president plans to use shifting public opinion to pressure pro-gun Republicans – and potent gun lobby NRA -- into compromising.
The president’s initial attempt to get immigration reform through Congress failed, but after Latinos turned out in record numbers to keep Obama in the White House (71 percent voted for him), he is said to be more determined than ever to get it done.
After ordering a halt to the deportation of young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as minors, and allowing them to apply for working permits, Obama may urge Congress to pass the DREAM Act (tabled in 2010), which would offer those immigrants permanent residency.
In the meantime, the president plans to press Congress to approve a comprehensive overhaul of the system, including a path to citizenship – along with fines or tax penalties -- for many of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country. Obama’s reform would increase the number of visas offered to highly skilled immigrants, create a program to attract low-wage immigrant workers, and introduce mandatory immigration status checks on new foreign employees.
Though Republicans have argued for passing more incremental immigration reform, they may be tempted to compromise in an effort to appeal to the fast-growing Latino electorate. If they don’t start attracting some of those voters, many analysts say their chances of winning back the White House in 2016 are slim.
Energy and climate change
“The president has been clear that tackling climate change and enhancing energy security will be among his top priorities in his second term,” a White House spokesman noted recently. Under pressure from activists who say that Obama did not advance his environmental agenda sufficiently in his first term, the president will likely be pushed to be more aggressive this time.
But some of Obama’s top environmental policy advisors (including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson) are stepping down. And once again, the president will be faced with staunch conservative opposition.
Obama has said he will require companies carrying out “fracking” (the controversial drilling practice in which chemicals are injected underground to release oil and gas) on public land to release a list of chemicals used; Republican lawmakers argue that such regulations should be left to the states. Efforts to pass measures capping carbon dioxide emissions (“cap-and-trade” legislation) may also meet stiff Congressional resistance, as they did in 2010.
Obama begins his second term with a tangle of foreign policy problems. He has announced plans to accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the transferring of security operations to Afghans.
The administration’s stance on the French intervention in Mali – the US will offer logistical support, but no ground troops – suggests that Obama is wary of engaging in any further military conflicts.
Instead, he plans on continuing to try to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, strengthen ties with India, manage tense relations with Pakistan, and keep an eye on China’s rise.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Obama will face pressure to prioritise Syria, where civil war has shaken the region. Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already indicated that the US would foster greater communication with the opposition to the Assad regime.
And it will be back to the drawing board when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which proved immune to Obama’s strategy at the start of his first term. Complicating matters is the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Obama has a strained relationship, is favoured to win Israeli parliamentary elections this month.