Moving Forward in the Second Term

When Barack Obama took his second oath of office and shortly after gave his inaugural speech, he made clear where his priorities lay. If we wanted to put it into a concise sentence, it could be summed up into “America First”. The focus was on domestic rather than foreign policy.

Image courtesy of Pete Souza, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Pete Souza, © 2010, some rights reserved.

The lack of foreign policy issues in the speech is in no way surprising, considering the challenges that await Obama at home. Amongst what people have toted as a “liberal” agenda, he declared his support for gay rights, the importance of combatting climate change and the need for gun control. Foreign policy remains on the agenda, of course, as the President made clear when he spoke about alliances across the globe and the United States’ continuous support for democracy all over the world. John Kerry, who has been confirmed by the Senate to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State, made clear in his confirmation hearing that the administration in no way means to take a step back from issues such as Iran’s nuclear threat or the Middle East peace process.

The inaugural speech however proved to many that domestic policy was at the forefront of the president’s agenda for his second term. Calling upon the constitution as the unifying force that brings all Americans together, President Obama praised his country’s history of inclusion and support for those less fortunate, its economic progress, and a strong workforce as the basis of its success. He called upon the country’s rich history and governmental capability to adapt, a trait it has proven so often in the past. In the following parts of his speech, he outlined the issues to be tackled in his second term: support and commitment to each other through further development and implementation of the health care system, fighting climate change and the threat it poses to future generations, equal pay for women and equal rights for homosexuals as well as better integration of immigrants.

Phrases in his speech likeOur journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well” made it clear that his goal, in short, is to ensure that the Pursuit of Happiness remains an achievable goal for all American citizens, no matter their orientation or their country of origin.

Capitalising on his success in the budget negotiations, the president did not drag his feet, announcing new initiatives on gun laws and immigration reform during the first month of the New Year. Empowered by his win and by popular support for a comprehensive immigration reform, Obama, in a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, made clear that he was in support of finding a pathway for citizenship for undocumented immigrants and that creating legislation to bring this about would be at the centre of his agenda in 2013. The President also proposed new (executive) action regarding gun laws, that would include banning assault weapons, limiting magazines, stronger controls of trafficking as well as more extensive background checks. With this, too, the administration is reflecting the mood in the general public, which has, after a number of shootings in the last months, made clear that stronger gun regulations are necessary.

Criticism is ripe for all of Obama’s new proposals and the question now therefore is whether these legislations can find the necessary bipartisan support. It is no secret that in his first term, Obama has had to work around a congress that more often than not blocked his proposals on principle. This struggle persists today, as fears arise that any initiative may be opposed simply because the president’s name is attached. Already the gun lobby is protesting, and Democrats from states with high gun ownership are thinking ahead to the midterm elections not wanting to risk losing popular support amongst their constituency. Similar difficulties arise in regards to the immigration overhaul, but the administration remains cautiously optimistic that Congress will act to implement the changes supported by a majority of Americans. The major challenge in the second term will be breaking the deadlock in the Republican-run House of Representatives and, as the president mentioned in the inaugural speech, to work together to help fulfil America’s full potential. The administration is looking to finish what was started and capitalize on the achievements of the president’s first term, without the need to worry about re-election looming over their heads. Obama is hoping to stop “leading from behind”, an accusation heard amongst not only Republicans but also his own supporters, and instead take initiative on the issues mentioned in the speech. However, the fear remains that a direct involvement of the president will, as it so often has in the past, work against him and his goals. Barack Obama mentioned in his inaugural speech, that the US government has in the past adapted to new times and new requirements, and it certainly will have to again if all the challenges are to be met.

As it is so often in politics, the intentions are good but implementation may be difficult. Polling has shown that the American people certainly share the president’s vision of the future and change is on the horizon both socially and politically. Whether their voices will be heard by those who make the decisions remains to be seen; but a president coming off of a strong re-election and a Congress concerned with midterm elections certainly makes for an interesting playing field.