Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Let's see if Obama can talk himself out of this one

Barack Obama
Barack Obama

As political theatre, the annual presidential State of the Union speech is as big as it gets in America. And this year's impassioned address by oratorical titan Barack Obama was certainly up to snuff.

But translating his ambitious agenda into concrete accomplishments in a deeply divided country will be tricky indeed.

Firstly, although in disarray after failing to dethrone Obama in November, Republicans are far from irrelevant in Congress.

Firmly in control of the House of Representatives, the Grand Old Party maintains the ability to gum up the legislative works and slow down any initiatives that Obama champions during his second term. Obama's feisty speech increases the likelihood that the draconian 'sequester' budget cuts – set to take effect on March 1, unless a fiscal compromise between Democrats and Republicans can be reached beforehand – will go ahead.

That is because Obama was emphatic about the role government must play in funding and directly hiring workers for the likes of public works, education and clean energy initiatives – initiatives that will all cost money at a time when Republicans are demanding deep budget cuts.

Obama also spoke passionately about the need to dramatically boost America's investment in alternative energy sources.

To do so, he'll have to convince members of Congress that it's more important to ignore the armies of lobbyists from the oil industry (which already get $4bn in annual tax-breaks) and forge a less oil-dependent energy strategy. Obama's biggest enemy is nothing less than America's political system.

Given that all 435 members of the House of Representatives and roughly one-third of the 100 members Senate must run for re-election in 21 months' time, Obama has roughly 15 months to accomplish things.

And those members of Congress know well the cost of re-election – on average about $2.1m (£1.3m) for a House seat and $3.2m (£2.1m) per Senate seat cushion.

Having to scrape together that cash – and House members have to do so every two years – means going deeper and deeper in hock to Big Money.

Lastly, while Obama's wish-list is impressive, the core issues that have contributed to much of the gridlock in Washington over the past two years – Republican demands for deep cuts to entitlement programs and Democrat calls for higher taxes on the super-rich – remain.

Obama's strength has always been in speech-making. But in his first term he showed that he was well behind the curve when it came to politicking, as Republicans repeatedly stonewalled him and forced concession after concession.

Nonetheless, in theory at least, being re-elected as president should give Obama a lot more muscle when it comes to showdowns with congressional Republicans.

But it will only do so if he sharpens his political skills well beyond the 'can't-we-all-just-get-along-together' style he employed to the extreme during his first administration.

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