Obama 2: The reluctant bully

By Nigel Wilson

With the speechwriters putting the final touches to Barack Obama’s second inauguration address, a panel of experts assembled at the Frontline Club on Wednesday 16 January to assess the challenges and expectations facing the president.

As with the gruelling election campaign, Obama’s priority will be the economy and more specifically the rate of job creation. Channel 4’s Felicity Spector summarised American expectations:

“The whole point behind the pivot to jobs that happened during the last election cycle was that Obama realised that simply talking about the deficit doesn’t mean much to people. Losing jobs is what hurts people and that’s what needs to change for people to feel the economy is getting better.”

With the panel debating the economic challenges facing the government, the discussion inevitably turned to the difficulties of Washington politics. With Democrats and Republicans narrowly avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff after a last minute compromise was reached on New Year’s Eve, easing the notorious log jam on Capitol Hill will be the second challenge for Obama.

ABC’s Nick Schifrin said the president:

“claimed that he would break the Washington politics as usual. That’s how he ran, that’s what he promised and he has failed to do that. Perhaps gun control today, with two dozen executive orders, maybe we’ll see a more aggressive Barack Obama taking his popularity for a spin.”

Spector added that Obama won’t be seeking re-election and so has scope to use his Presidential powers more extensively. Democrats Abroad chair Robert Carolina agreed:

“We are seeing a bit of a shift in his style of dealing with Washington. We’re certainly seeing a difference in approach and that had some positive outcomes with the fiscal cliff and I think we’ll see a different style of resolution to the debt ceiling.”

Whilst the panel were unanimous in their belief that domestic economics and politics will present Obama’s biggest tests, his foreign policy will be scrutinised just as closely. Spector sensed the significance of Obama’s pick for Secretary of Defence and State, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry respectively, suggesting they lack the appetite for foreign intervention:

“They’re both people who are very much against a policy of aggressive interventionism in the rests of the world. It’s likely these are the kind of people who will continue with a dis-engaged policy, who only want America to get involved in international conflicts as a very last resort if American interests are directly affected.”

Schifrin forecast a bleak future for a post-Assad Syria if the US remained disengaged from the opposition forces.

“Unless there’s a concrete effort to organise a concrete opposition, northern Syria becomes a failed state. And in a failed state there are a lot of actors, warlords, corruption. A force like Al-Qaeda comes in and offers an alternative…they mete out justice and slowly become popular. It’s a huge problem and it doesn’t seem like the Obama administration has a real strategy for Syria.”

Indeed whilst the American economy will certainly provide a four year challenge, instability in the Middle East remains an unpredictable sand trap that the President can’t afford to ignore.

Watch the full event here: