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Chris Ford: Obama and his second term - a huge task ahead

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

President Obama had the good fortune to be able to do his inauguration twice. The first came on Sunday when he was officially sworn in. The second time was on Monday at the U.S. Capitol building where he repeated his vows to the American people a second time. After all the partying comes the huge task of governing for a second term.

He's got a huge amount on his plate. Obama should savour his progressive achievements but yet watch his back.

Obama can take pride in the fact that America has reflated its economy despite having a growing deficit. This has given America an increasing growth rate reflected in rising consumer confidence, housebuilding starts, and increasing incomes all brought about by one thing - rising employment. America's unemployment rate now stands at around 7.7 percent, down from nearly 10 percent when he took over from George W. Bush in 2009. The President spearheaded a successful neo-Keynesian stimulus package that has gradually revived manufacturing and other key sectors of the economy. This makes America different from Europe which is still mired in aggressive deficit cutting due to its experiment with neo-liberalism. Obama has shown how Keynesianism can work in the 21st Century.

Obama can bask too in the knowledge that he has reformed health care. It's not the universal, free health care system that many of us know in New Zealand and elsewhere. In American terms, though, Obama's health reforms will provide affordable health care coverage to many millions more Americans by 2014. Many opinion polls continue to show that what the Republicans term Obamacare has become hugely popular with the American public who struggle daily with high medical bills.

Another thing that Obama should be proud of is his championing of climate change. While conservative governments, such as those in New Zealand and Canada, argue for more voluntary targets, Obama issued a clarion call in his inaugural address for greater government involvement in stemming this great danger to our planet. And he has caught the American zeitgeist for gay marriage too with his statement that our "gay brothers and sisters" should be able to enter into matrimony on the same basis as non-LGBT people.

Obama also needs to note the concerns of the worldwide progressive left community. This includes about his foreign policy in particular.

He needs to call off the drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere that have not only killed Islamist militants but also innocent civilians. The Pentagon has long reiterated that targetting errors or "collateral damage" are part of the unavoidable nature of war. However, these strikes have a purpose in terrorising the population into not supporting Islamists when, due to their poverty and lack of education, they do so in that part of the world. Besides, in doing so, President Obama has continued the long national security consensus in American politics whereby the use of military power is justified in the push for so-called "greater freedom and democracy." In other words, American presidents have long aimed (as Obama does under the convenient cover of the so-called War On Terror) to make the world safer for American corporates. In this age of rising globalisation, the U.S. is now concerned about the rising of opposing new capitalist powers like China, Russia and India as well. The U.S. sowed up better relations with India through going more sour with Pakistan and signing a nuclear technology exchange agreement with them during the Bush years - Obama has continued this policy. China and Russia, however, remain prickly rivals and Obama is wanting to keep as many U.S. allies in the tent as possible (including New Zealand) through the signing of one-sided free trade deals (which will ultimately favour American over New Zealand capital). While America is a more progressive place under Obama, don't think that it hasn't stopped thinking about how to retain its global position at the expense of others.

He needs to ensure that the poorest Americans are protected against savage Republican proposed cuts in welfare and Medicare/Medicaid spending. I don't think he will hold the line though given that the Republicans have endorsed Democrat-backed tax increases on the wealthiest Americans. Obviously, the Republicans (and their corporate allies) will demand welfare cuts to the already minimal American welfare state. As in Britain, Europe and New Zealand, welfare reform will hit the poorest hardest and some of these people will have voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. If the president agrees to severe cuts, he may leave his Democrat candidate successor with the headache of having to woo many more disenchanted liberals and left-leaning Democrats next time. In 2012, Obama did lose votes as nearly 5 million fewer Americans (probably very low income earners) stayed at home making his victory margin narrower than in 2008.

Obama does deserve support, though, for his efforts to stiffen gun control. The Sandy Hook School massacre at Christmas saw Obama finally get angry with the National Rifle Association and their congressional allies. As a father and politician, he wants to prevent more mass slayings. In fact, just 24 hours after the main inaugural festivities, another college shooting was reported in Texas. Obama has now a growing tide of public opinion on his side. Interestingly, increasing gun sales show that many gun loving Americans recognise that the game might be up soon, at least in terms of openly permitting the sale of assault rifles. First, though, Obama has to win the fight with a divided Congress and a combative NRA. 

As I have said, Obama is the most progressive American leader since Lyndon B. Johnson. I know that some of my radical friends on the left have criticised him for being just another corporate-sponsored, global dominance seeking American president. That's true but I say to them that you have to think about how the corporate elites have turned America into a closed shop democracy that benefits their interests. And Obama is about as radical a president as America is likely to get in the circumstances.




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