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Obama 2.0: Where to Now?

President Obama starts his second term with a stronger hand and increased political capital. He has an opportunity to forge a legacy like that of FDR and JFK as a stalwart of liberalism, or he will try to build consensus through compromise. Whether or not Congress is willing to come along stands to be determined.

Image by George Cassutto
Copyright 2013
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President Obama won re-election by about three million votes, but because he carried nine out of ten battleground states, his Electoral College margin was commanding: 332 to 206. With that kind of landslide, the President could claim that he was given a mandate by the American people to make his agenda of lower tax rates for the middle class and a “balanced approach to deficit reduction” a reality during his second term.

For Republicans, this mandate means increased taxes on the rich with little or no meaningful spending cuts on the other side of the ledger. In fact, the President can claim victory as the nation emerged from the fiscal cliff fiasco. He forced Congress to increase marginal tax rates from 35% to 39% for households making over $400,000, but the deal leaves alone $4 trillion in increased costs over the next decade, adding to the $16 trillion national debt. The 113th Congress, sworn in on January 3, 2013, will be in no mood to give President Obama any more leeway on the debt ceiling or on increased revenue that might come as a result of reforming the tax code. The President will also be forced to make meaningful proposals (and maybe even compromises, a word that has become taboo) on entitlement reform. Contrary to what Democrats might say or want, adjustments to benefits in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid must be made to keep these programs solvent for future generations. How the President will tackle these major drivers of the national debt and federal deficit remain a mystery.

If the fiscal cliff crisis is a harbinger for what governing in America will be like during the second Obama administration, there will be numerous clashes between the Democratic Executive Branch and the divided legislative branch, with the upper house controlled by the Democrats and the lower house dominated by an increasingly recalcitrant Republican Party. The Tea Party faction of the Republican Party continues to give Speaker John Boehner trouble in critical votes, as we saw during the fiscal cliff debate and in the election of Boehner himself for Speaker of the House on the first day of the new Congress. They are in no mood for compromise with the President on critical issues facing the newly sworn-in 113th Congress.

President Obama was forced to govern from the center during the last two years of his first term because the Tea Party pulled the Congress so far to the right. Under other circumstances, Obama may have been seen as a progressive or a liberal, but in order to achieve any legislative victories, he had to compromise away many of the hallmarks of liberalism many in his own party were demanding. For example, in the bargaining that led to the passage of the Affordable Health Care Act of 2010, (a.k.a. Obamacare), the President had to jettison the single payer idea as well as the public option.

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