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Dublin: 18 °C Tuesday 29 July, 2014

Column: For Obama, this inauguration will be very different than the first

In January 2009, nearly two million people flocked to see the first African-American be sworn in as president – but, four years on, some promises have yet to be fulfilled. This term will present even more challenges, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly

TODAY, BARACK Obama will be inaugurated as President of the United States for a second time. Devotees of American politics will know that presidential inaugurations occur on the 20 January.  Because that falls on a Sunday this year, President Obama will have been privately sworn in yesterday – but the public ceremony will take place today, which also happens to be Martin Luther King Day in the US.

There is no question that this will be a very different inauguration than the first. Four years ago, nearly two million people flocked to Washington, DC to see the first African-American president take the oath of office. January 2009 was a month full of heady days. Tens of millions of Americans, especially the young people and African-Americans who expressed their support for Barack Obama in unprecedented numbers at the ballot box, believed that this new president would lead America out of recession, restore its moral authority on the global stage and unite a divided country. They were joined by millions more around the world, including a lot of people here in Ireland.

First term

President Obama did not succeed fully on any of these three fronts in his first term. Observers who thought he could do so much in four short years were naive. Observers who regard his first term as a failure, however, are wrong. The president ‘fought the good fight’ on a variety of pressing issues with some triumphs – most notably in expanding access to affordable health care for millions –  and a majority of Americans ultimately decided he deserved another term in office.

A second term presents myriad challenges for President Obama.  The capacity of his administration to cope with them will determine his place in history.  Meanwhile, Americans, together with the rest of the world, wait eagerly to see:

1) If President Obama can simultaneously invigorate a still sluggish economy and ensure fiscal sustainability at home.

2) What foreign policy initiatives his administration will pursue over the next four years.  Here in Ireland, many wonder whether a leader they so manifestly adore can make a difference for this country and its people.

Domestically, the US Congress missed the long-established “fiscal cliff” deadline before covering what would have been a catastrophic hole in the country’s finances with a retroactive band aid.  In several weeks, President Obama will ask Congress to raise the debt ceiling, allowing the government to borrow the money it needs to pay its astronomically high bills. Republicans are spoiling for a fight and will seek to extract concessions from the president and congressional Democrats on cuts to social programmes desired by the right as a precondition to their support for an increase in the debt ceiling.

Fiscal cliff showdown

A second protracted fight, right after the fiscal cliff showdown, would frighten markets, damage the economy and further sully the already poor reputation of America’s political leaders.  What mustn’t be lost in the partisan squabbling is the reality that the US has to address government spending one way or another.  The rate of spending and the level of borrowing necessary to maintain the spending are unsustainable.

Consequently, Democrats are going to have to accept some unpalatable spending cuts. It is incumbent on President Obama to play a leadership role in addressing a crisis that has reached epic proportions. While robustly defending his party’s values and priorities, the president will need to convince reticent congressional Democrats that undeniably painful reforms will be the price that must be paid to preserve programmes that benefit the poor, the sick and the elderly.

Internationally, it can only be hoped that President Obama will endeavour to ameliorate the complex problems confronting the world’s trouble spots in his second term.  The most vexing trouble spot is the Middle East.  Four years ago, some believed that President Obama might be the first American leader brave enough to question his country’s extremely close, virtually sacrosanct relationship with Israel and to pursue actively the creation of a Palestinian state.  He did not do so in his first term.  But now, freed to a certain extent from political pressure in that he’s finished his final campaign, there is greater scope for President Obama to push the relevant parties a bit harder.

More broadly in the region, the president should continuously and relentlessly engage constructively with political leaders, particularly those who came to power in the wake of the Arab Spring and have voiced anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments.  Many Americans, at this point virulently opposed to the use of military force as a means of resolving problems, were frightened by the hawkish talk from President Obama’s opponent in November’s election, Mitt Romney. That the president has nominated two war veterans who are resolutely anti-war, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, to be his Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence augurs well for all who believe in diplomacy.

What’s it mean for Ireland?

Finally, as some Irish people ask rhetorically “what difference does it make to us who the American president is?” President Obama’s re-election could make a very big difference to the lives of tens of thousands of Irish people and their families.  These are Irish men and women who live without legal status in the shadows of America.  Their families here anguish over them and fear for their well-being.

In recent days, it’s been reported that President Obama will push for far-reaching immigration reform that would create a path to citizenship for the now undocumented Irish and enable young Irish people a chance to live and work in the US on at least a temporary basis.

A comprehensive immigration reform proposal would not be on the horizon if Mitt Romney had been elected president.  This is just one concrete, tangible example of why US presidential elections do matter to Ireland and its people.

These are the sort of wide-ranging issues – big and (relatively) small – confronting President Barack Obama as his second term commences.  And he has to get to grips with them quickly, for he’ll be a lame duck in about eighteen months. No pressure, Mr President.

Larry Donnelly, a Boston lawyer, is a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with IrishCentral.com. For more articles by Larry Donnelly for TheJournal.ie click here.

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