Obama's in-tray: from gun control to tax, second term will be full of battles

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?

Gun control

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.

Political legacy

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.

Foreign policy

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.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ewen MacAskill in Washington DC, for guardian.co.uk on Sunday 20th January 2013 20.55 Europe/London

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