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Obama gets a second chance to play a bad hand

By Brendon O'Connor and Katherine Delaney - posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013


On the eve of his second inauguration and the grand balls that will surround it Barack Obama has told the influential website Politico: "People who know me know I'm a pretty friendly guy. And I like a good party."

That Obama has to tell people he knows how to party comes as no surprise to many Washington DC insiders who label him the "extrovert-in-chief". The fact that Obama thinks he needs to show he can backslap and socialise with his Republican opponents means he knows he has a problem with image makers.

The Washington press has taken umbrage with the lack of access to Obama and his White House. Many seem to pine for the good old days of the Clinton administration when political and personal gossip flowed regularly from the White House. Nonetheless, the Obama administration may have gone too far in the opposite direction. Presidents cannot legislate, only congress can; presidential power is significantly the power of persuasion, and wooing the press is just part of how one gets things done in US politics. Successful presidents win first in the court of public opinion so they can then force their opponents in the congress into defending clearly unpopular positions. The Republican cry of "all prose, no policies" shows that Obama has not translated his broad-brush rhetoric into a conversation with the American people.

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Encouragingly he has admitted that the greatest failing of his first term was "thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right". He has now admitted he should be "spending more time with the American people, listening to them". Obama's political inexperience led to his failures to detail his policies and shape perceptions between elections. He has more experience now but perhaps looking back further into his past could give him a tip or two.

Readers of Obama's memoir will know he did know how to party during his Hawaiian youth and West Coast student days. Those familiar with his early political career in the Illinois state Senate might also have read that Obama honed his poker and political skills simultaneously in those years as he learnt to play the political game. The light touch and craftiness from those earlier days could serve him well now as he faces a very difficult set of challenges at the start of his new presidential term. On many fronts Obama is not only dealing with problems created by the Bush administration but also with overzealous policies on taxation, deregulation and Afghanistan that date back as far as the Reagan administration. The 2012 election mantra of the Republican candidates of "what would Reagan do" is often redundant as in many respects the Reagan Revolution lives on. However, as Obama pushes back against certain long-standing conservative policies he could learn from the Californian president's light touch in dealing with heavy issues. Reagan was not universally popular with either the American people or foreign leaders, but his charm certainly helped his administration achieve major changes. Obama is not beyond replicating such a political persona, although he often walks a fine line between relaxed humour and patronising aloofness.

As for craftiness, perhaps Obama should be reading Lyndon Baines Johnson biographies rather than reigniting a national fascination with Abraham Lincoln. For insomniacs and political junkies alike, Robert Caro's fourth, but not final, volume of his enormous biography of LBJ illuminates Johnson's skilful cajoling of congressmen to promote civil rights legislation. LBJ's and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's political cunning was key to the major changes achieved by their respective administrations. If Obama has more ambitious plans for his second term he needs to learn how those two politicians talked tough in public when facing off with Republicans, but - particularly in the case of Johnson - found common ground (or individual fears) when negotiating in private. It is tempting to say these were different times with a less invasive and sensationalist media culture and a less partisan congress; however, these two presidents provide the best models for passing major domestic reforms.

Political skills are easier to discuss than the issues of Obama's second term, which are likely to be more unpredictable than anyone can say in early 2013. Existing problems may well be joined by new headaches for the President. More positively, the trend lines on US unemployment and growth are good news for Obama, but with an unemployment rate of 7.8 per cent and the growth rate for the year looking very uncertain, the economy will still be his biggest challenge. This is amplified by the issue of debt. According to the OECD, the US government's debt as a percentage of GDP is 110 per cent (by comparison, Australia's is 29 per cent while Japan's is 214 per cent). There is a school of thought in the US, headed by the influential Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, that America's so-called debt crisis is exaggerated by Republicans who want to cut social programs for moralistic reasons rather than to save the US economy. Krugman is of the view America can grow its way out of its debt troubles, as it did in the 1990s.

Others argue US government spending on social security and healthcare is unsustainable. In the view of the British economic historian Niall Ferguson, this spending will lead to America's relative decline as a world power. Krugman seems right in his assertion that the debt debate favours fearmongering over sound economics. The Republicans' use of a debt clock as a major prop at their national convention last year is a good example of this. On the other hand, social security payments (guaranteed retirement benefits received from the age of 67 onwards in the US) and government health expenditure seem far from sustainable and, in the case of healthcare expenditure, there are huge inefficiencies. The Democrats are very reluctant to reform social security whereas Republicans like Paul Ryan talk about means testing but as part of a more privatised system.

In Obama's first term, healthcare reform was the focus. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was the signature piece of legislation. There is some evidence costs have slightly decreased since its implementation and what is certain is more Americans have healthcare cover than ever before. However, way too much of the US GDP is spent on healthcare, fuelled largely by the most highly paid doctors in the world, price-inflating insurance firms and administrative replication.

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One of the great ironies of this situation is that America's commitment to a free-market health system is accelerating its decline relative to communist China.

For those looking for a bolder Obama in his second term his announcement this week on gun reform suggests a president unburdened by the need to be re-elected. The shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school is possibly a Port Arthur moment for Americans: the killing of 20 students and six staff members rightly raises serious questions about the availability of military-style weapons and why up to 40 per cent of legal gun purchases occur without proper background checks. Obama has seized the moment, calling for bans on assault weapons, multiple-bullet gun magazines, and a better system of background checking. Public opinion is largely on his side in this debate. The challenge is convincing enough Republicans in the House of Representatives, where they are the majority party, to enact sensible gun reform.

As for foreign policy, events yet unknown make predictions hazardous. To the extent the President is the master of his own destiny, one certainty is he will seek to increase the pivot to Asia.

For Australia this means we will slowly become less of a strategic backwater. Given the remarkable enthusiasm the Australian people had for Obama's re-election - a BBC poll put support in Australia at 68 per cent compared with 6 per cent for Mitt Romney - the announcement of more US troops in Australia, announced by Obama in Canberra in 2011, thus far has few critics. However, while being closer to the centre of power might excite politicians and diplomats, whether it is in the Australian people's interest is questionable and the question should be debated rigorously.

Expectations were so high when Obama was first elected that it is not surprising many feel disappointed with his first term. In truth, he was an extremely inexperienced leader who has needed a lot of on-the-job training. His performance as president and his lacklustre 2012 election campaign have dampened expectations. Showing that Americans can be both idealistic and pragmatic, they were willing to re-elect Obama, realising the terrible hand he was dealt in 2008. The situation this year is little better than four years ago; but Obama is much more experienced and battle-hardened.

Given this, the American people may well be better served by Obama the struggling politician than by Obama the charismatic speechmaker.

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About the Authors

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

Katherine Delaney is a Research Assistant at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Brendon O'Connor
All articles by Katherine Delaney

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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