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United States

Nothing quiet on the domestic front

The reform of US gun and immigration laws, a weak economy, an unresolved Middle East conflict and the looming withdrawal from Afghanistan - President Obama’s challenges are manifold.

President Barack Obama enters his second term with the support of the majority of Americans. Several polls conducted in the last couple of days may differ by a few percentage points, but they all give Obama approval ratings of more than 50 percent - although in some cases it's a close lead.

But the polls also underline Obama's problem: The country remains divided. While most Democrats support his policies, a majority of Republicans oppose them.

"Even if you have high approval ratings, and even if the election gives you a mandate to boast of, the current configuration of Congress is extraordinarily difficult," Professor Julian E. Zelizer of Princetown University told DW. "The nature of the Republican Party is causing the White House considerable concern - as is the broader financial and broader budgetary condition of the government."

The historian expects continued legislative deadlock, as was the case at the end of Obama's first term. He is not convinced that any major reforms will be passed over the next few years.

U.S President Barack Obama (L) takes the oath of office 
REUTERS/Larry Downing

Obama was sworn in during a quiet ceremony in the White House

Debt ceiling, state finances, jobs

Compared to Obama's first term, however, Republicans now seem more willing to compromise in some areas. In the House of Representatives, they have agreed to raise the debt ceiling for three months. Otherwise, the government would have run out of money by late February.

Obama has made clear that he does not want another debate about whether or not to raise the debt ceiling. In 2011, a similar debate led to the downgrading of the US by credit rating agencies.

Many experts believe that the economy will take center-stage during Obama's second term. "At the end of the day, the economy will be the most important element in his second term," said Jacob F. Kirkegaard from the Peterson Institute for International Economics. While unemployment figures may be falling, said Kirkegaard, many people have in fact stopped looking for jobs, effectively dropping out of the labor market. This, the expert warned, could lead to long-term, chronic unemployment, which could impact on economic growth.

Much depends on Congress

That's one of the reasons why the Fed has pledged to keep the money press running until the unemployment rate falls to 6.5 percent.

When it comes to fighting unemployment, the President is faced with a familiar problem: He depends on the House of Representatives, where the Republicans hold a majority, and on the Senate, where a Republican minority can block legislation.

It's important that Obama now gets "Congress to agree on a long-term deal on fiscal policy," said Kirkegaard.

The economic expert is, however, convinced that Obama will make progress in trade relations with other countries, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with countries such as Australia, Peru and Chile. Kirkegaard is also thinks that the US-EU trade agreement will soon be launched.

Obama wants to introduce criminal background checks for all gun sales

On the domestic front, President Obama has managed to make some headway on gun laws. He has signed 23 Executive Orders, among them an investigation into the background of gun violence.

But whether he can push through his demands, such as criminal background checks for all arms purchases, remains to be seen, said Professor Zelizer. He doubts "that he'll gain much traction on that."

Migration and health reforms

Chances of success are slightly better for the upcoming immigration reform, said Professor Zelizer, who is the author of several books on US Presidents. "That's the one area where President Obama clearly does have a chance to do something big. The reason is not that there is much good-will among Republicans, but because they are desperate not to be tagged as the anti-immigrant party."

Against the backdrop of demographic change, said Professor Zelizer, Republicans acknowledge they can't risk losing the votes of steadily growing minority groups. In addition, the number of those within the party who support the migration reform is also on the rise.

Regarding the health reform, the biggest task for the Obama administration, according to Professor Zelizer, consists in "both protecting what he already got Congress to pass and making sure it works."

New CIA director John Brennan (l); defense secretary Chuck Hagel (r)

Consistency abroad

Experts don't expect any surprises when it comes to foreign policy. The second term is likely to be dominated by the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the unresolved, ongoing Middle East conflict and a controversial anti-terrorism policy that relies on unmanned drones.

By nominating John Kerry as the future Secretary of State, Republican Chuck Hagel as Defense Minister, and John Brennan as director of the CIA, Obama has signaled consistency, said Julian Zelizer: "Hagel is a hawk. Even though he is someone who is skeptical and careful about when to use military powers, he is a solid Republican who has very often been willing to use force."

Vietnam War veteran John Kerry and John Brennan, the former President's counterterrorism adviser, complete this picture.

Obama's foreign policy agenda corresponds to the wishes of a majority of Americans. According to a poll conducted by the 'Better World Campaign', most interviewees would like the President to focus on the global economy and trade. Concerns about Iran or North Korea gaining access to nuclear weapons came second place, and tensions in the Middle East and in South-West Asia came third, followed by terrorism. Ending the war in Afghanistan and bringing the troops home was also on the list.

So one thing is clear: In his second term, the President is likely to have as much on his plate as during his first.

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