Obama Round Two: Policy or Personality?

American liberals can now breathe a collective sigh of relief and cancel their plans to flee to Canada. With Romney’s attempt to win the White House having fallen short, the majority of people around the world who supported Obama can join in as well.

But as Obama commences his second term in office, what can we expect? What will be new, and what will be the same?  What are the issues that will dominate the Obama administration’s agenda for the next four years?



Climate change and energy

“The president has been clear that tackling climate change and enhancing energy security will be among his top priorities in his second term,” said Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman.

Congress has been hostile to the kind of legislation necessary to make a dramatic impact in mitigating climate change. However, new carbon emissions standards on future power plants are currently making their way through the regulatory process. Power plants are an important area to tackle as they are currently responsible for 40% of uncontrolled carbon pollution in the US, making it the single largest source in the country.

With respect to energy, Obama’s agenda will likely be a continuation of his policies in his first term: more reliance on renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, and expanded production of oil and natural gas.

One of his first challenges will be whether to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas. Republicans and many business groups lobbying for the project say it would help North America gain energy independence and create thousands of jobs. Environmental groups, on the other hand, have urged the President to block it because of the “dirty oil” that would be transported from tar sands in western Canada and the production of heat-trapping gases.

With the boom in oil and natural gas production, Obama faces another dilemma as to whether to continue to promote it at the expense of renewable sources of energy.

Foreign policy

The Middle East will continue to be a source of many headaches for Obama. U.S. troops are scheduled to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, bringing America’s longest war to a conclusion. Iran’s nuclear program, which US sanctions have done little to slow despite their crippling effect on the Iranian economy, and possible military action by Israelis, are other minefields that Obama will have to navigate. Hillary Clinton will be replaced by John Kerry, former presidential nominee and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as Secretary of State.

Gun control legislation

The recent massacre of 26 children and teachers in a Connecticut school has propelled gun control to the forefront of Obama’s domestic policy agenda. Proposed reforms, including a renewed ban on assault weapons, limiting ammunition clip size and universal background checks on gun sales, have already come under attack by the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA).

Given the NRA’s historically successful attempts in the past to stymie gun control legislation, expect an uphill battle.

Immigration

After having failed to get immigration reform off the ground in his first term, Obama plans an all-out push to get a comprehensive bill on immigration reform signed within months. The White House has called fixing immigration a vital step if the country is to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.”

Unlike climate change and guns, immigration reform is actually an issue that may be able to garner some bipartisan support. A group of eight Republican and Democratic senators are currently working on a bill that’s likely to include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a new system for bringing in low-wage workers, an expansion of visas for hi-tech jobs, and a crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers.

That said, the House’s ultra-conservative Republican majority may prove to be an obstacle to the passage of the bill. On the upside, immigration reform is an issue that has had a while to evolve, and during that time a formidable support base has evolved that includes Latino groups, labour unions, religious institutions and business groups, all of whom are planning campaigns in support of the bill.

Economy

In the next few months, Obama also faces the need to raise the debt ceiling and deal with automatic spending cuts that are set to take place.

In the longer-term, Obama has emphasised a comprehensive infrastructure program as the means to stabilising and growing the economy. “If we are putting people back to work – rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our schools – in part paying for it by some of these broader, long-term deficit reduction measures that need to take place, that will grow the economy at the same time as we are also setting our path for long term fiscal stability.”

Ken Duberstein, White House chief of staff during Ronald Reagan’s second term, once said, “In the first term, you are running for re-election. In the second term, you’re running for legacy.”

As Obama looks to the sort of legacy that will be written in history books, let’s hope it is one that future generations can marvel at.