It is done. Barack Obama is officially the President of the United States of America for another four years. Sunday at noon (eastern standard time) and then again on Monday he took the oath of office required of the world’s most powerful man.
One of the US constitution’s more innocuous eccentricity is the requirement for a president to take office on the 20th of January at noon. It creates an extended period, from the polls closing in November through the holiday season and into the cold of late January where, with a lame duck session of congress on the side lines, everyone gets to wonder how the new (or second term) administration will approach the next four years.
For a second term president such as Obama the questions are less about character and personality and more concerned with substance. Obama 1.0 was typified by roadblocks and concessions and perhaps the biggest question coming into 2013 is if this will change. Obama doesn’t have re-election to think about and can afford to ‘front up’ to congressional and senate Republicans. Already in the lame duck session he has pulled the US from the fiscal cliff (besting John Boehner in the process) and seems determined to press ahead with gun control reforms that threaten to be as challenging as Obamacare.
Of course being strong in a lame duck session is no indication that Obama will adopt quite the same stance for the rest of his term. The midterms will affect how both parties act as will the inevitable loss of the post-election good will that Obama now enjoys. For the moment Obama is forced to pick his fights, although it is possible that the GOP will be more wiling to deal after its popular humiliation last November. Gun control will be the first challenge that both he and Joe Biden face. To pass it intact will be a test of will, one which may shape Obama’s approach to the next task, keeping the economy on track. Here both parties disagree fundamentally and the kind of political cock fights that marked Obama’s first term economic initiatives are likely to be repeated.
Outside of Washington’s bull ring Obama must also oversee a transition in American foreign policy. Well over a decade of active involvement in the Middle-East is coming to an end under his oversight and the consensus among the defense community is that there will be a ‘strategic pivot’ to Asia-Pacific in order for America to react to the onset of what is being lazily dubbed the ‘Asian Century‘. Beyond this however North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean are where Obama may leave an immediate legacy come January 20th, 2017. With Syria in a state of civil war, Libya and Egypt unstable and much of northern Africa increasingly chaotic the question is not if but when, and with how much force, America commits to the region. A boots on the ground intervention is not out of the question (although some right wing ‘thinkers’ would advocate saving this for Iran) but a step up in drone activity (as seen in Yemen, legality not withstanding) and more passive support of regimes in the region seems like a more measured response. The complex religious and ethnic politics of the Sahel render a quick solution to the regions problems impossible. There is a danger that, focus towards the shift of foreign policy towards China, northern Africa gets forgotten and Obama creates, through inaction or the wrong action, a ‘second Iraq’ at the Sahara’s edge.
The ‘Hope’ era may be a distant memory but Obama’s second term is an oppertunity for the left to tackle issues under the leadership of a President who enjoys mainstream support and is enboldened by a search for his legacy. Whatever the final outcome the next four years promise to be just as controversial as the the last.