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United States

2012 defined by legislative gridlock in the US

For the US, 2012 was dominated politically by November's presidential election and disputes over how to dig the country out of its financial hole. Despite much stagnation, the year brought shifts on foreign policy.

It was not a good year for many Washington insiders. The presidential campaign and the hard lines drawn between Democrats and Republicans led to a legislative standstill.

Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, has been observing political events in the capitol for decades and views the most recent Congressional make-up as a disaster.

"The indicators are that this was perhaps one of the least productive Congresses in history," Mann told Deutsche Welle in an interview. Assessments of that Congress cannot yet be complete, thought, given the ongoing negotiations over the fiscal cliff - the automatic budget cuts and tax hikes that are to go into effect in 2013 should Republicans in Congress and Democratic President Barack Obama not alter the legislative course.

The tug-of-war over the "fiscal cliff" reflects the political battle lines in the country: Democrats and Republicans agree that the massive national debt and government spending must be cut, but they cannot agree on how. Republicans want to fend off tax hikes, while Democrats want to limit budget cuts.

Economic climate helps Obama

President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner. (Reuters/Larry Downing)

Compromise eluded US leaders in 2012

The last year's most central event - the presidential election in November, 2012 - has changed nothing in this political standoff. Obama was re-elected, but he still faces a House of Representatives dominated by Republicans. The president knows there is a great deal to do, including "reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil," as Obama said in his victory speech.

But the economy stands above all of that and it, said Thomas Mann, was decisive for Obama's re-election. "We now had a revised report on third-quarter GDP growth, and it turns out to be 3.1 percent," he said. Unemployment has dropped - following the slump in 2009; the situation has slowly but steadily improved.

The verbal slips of Obama's contender Mitt Romney, and hints of opposition toward the former governor of Massachusetts from within his own party, helped to strengthen Obama's standing. Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged huge stretches of the northeastern coast and caused billions and billions of dollars in damage, enabled the President - just before the election - to perform in the role as "father of the country," who looks after his people and ignores political wrangling.

Gun control back on the agenda

Another perennial discussion in US politics returned in 2012: gun control laws. The Newtown massacre, in which a perpetrator killed his mother and then 20 six- and seven-year-olds and six adults in a school, before turning the gun on himself, shocked the nation in December. During his first public comments on the event, the president had to fight back tears.

Less than one week later, he announced a commission to be led by Vice President Joe Biden that would investigate what measures could be undertaken to prevent such a tragedy from happening again and what could help to reduce the number of people killed by guns.

A single change in law would not be enough to accomplish that, the president noted, but argued that's not a good reason to change nothing.

"We're going to need to work on making access to mental health care as easy as access to a gun, and we're going to need to look more closely at a culture that, all too often, glorifies guns and violence," he said. Biden's commission is supposed to make recommendations in January.

A sign reading Rest in Peace Little Ones' hangs on the front door of a house in Newtown, Connecticut
(EPA/Peter Foley/dpa)

The Newtown school massacre may have marked a turning point in the debate on guns

Republicans in a dilemma

In all of these debates - the fiscal cliff, climate change, guns - the Republicans, who veered right following mid-term elections in 2010 due to the influence of the conservative Tea Party movement, are increasingly on the defensive.

Thomas Mann points to problems ahead for Republicans, who rely on some groups whose proportion in the population is dwindling. Their approval ratings sit 15 percent behind those of the Democrats, and they've had difficulty making headway in key policy planks like security and defense, Mann added.

The president would have preferred to concentrate on domestic policy, but the events in Afghanistan, the Arab world and the South China Sea did not allow him to do so, Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations said in an interview with DW. For Obama's Afghanistan policy, 2012 was "a year of readying the American public, NATO, and European publics for the endgame."

In other words, that means fighting terrorism, stepping up the struggle against al-Qaeda but less so against the Taliban, less "nation building" and more effort towards transferring responsibility to the Afghans. Kupchan said he would not be surprised if the withdrawal is complete in 2013.

Foreign policy reorientation

John Kerry arrives at a security conference
(Photo:Frank Augstein/AP/dapd)

The new face of US foreign policy will be John Kerry

Over the past year, Obama's foreign policy involved a reorientation, which Kupchan described as an attempt to establish American diplomacy that meets with the approval of the rest of the world - a mixture of leadership and a willingness to listen to others. It has also involved a shift in emphasis away from massive military intervention, to the use of armed smart drones, and joint operations such as with the Europeans. That helps explain Obama's unwillingness to undertake military action in Syria.

Kupchan observes that the president has rediscovered Europe and has become more of an "Atlanticist" than at the beginning of his term. Working more closely with China, Turkey or Brazil proved to be difficult. So despite the much-discussed pivot to Asia, Europe is still the ally of choice, even if the Europeans cannot always afford the support that is needed due to the euro crisis.

Strength from within

At least in the case of Myanmar, the policy of the "outstretched hand" was a success, Kupchan said. In November 2011, Obama was the first US president to visit the country. And even in the nuclear dispute with Iran, where there has been no diplomatic breakthrough, "it has served him well, because it has given him leverage in tightening sanctions."

But ultimately, the president emphasized over and over again in 2012 that the United States must do its homework first and foremost: reforming laws, strengthening infrastructure, boosting the economy. Only an America functioning well at home can also fulfill its foreign policy role as the sole superpower on the world stage. For 2013, there is much to do.

DW.DE

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