ANALYSES

Barack Obama 2: change or continuity?

Interview
15 avril 2013
Since he was reelected, has Barack Obama adopted a new approach or has he largely stuck with his first-term methodology?
He's clearly adopted a new approach of trying to work more closely with Congress. What remains to be seen is whether that will produce results. Obama had almost no Washington experience when he was first elected four years ago and he thought his personal popularity could secure the success of his political programs. Obama's initial vision of his office would actually have been more suited to that of a president of the French Fifth Republic. It took some bruising lessons, including his 'shellacking' in the 2010 mid-terms, for him to understand that Washington's ways are different: congressmen and senators can and do outlast presidents and they hold, politically and constitutionally, a power of their own. Having been reelected, Obama is more of a force to be reckoned with, whereas the Republicans basically spent his first term trying — and failing — to make sure he would be a one-term president. But he still needs to find a way to get things done and overcome the disappointment of his supporters. Now, even though he's decided to cultivate Congress and to negotiate and cajole, it's not certain that he will get his way just because he's showing flexibility. There's a real question too whether this change of tactic actually represents a change of heart, or whether it's just a shift in emphasis recommended by his advisors, especially the new White House chief of staff Denis McDonough. In other words, is this new approach a change Obama can believe in?

In that context, what should we make of the budget that Obama submitted to Congress last week? Does it pave the way for compromise or for more gridlock?
Bizarrely, a bit of both. Once again, Congress holds the power in domestic policy-making in the United States, especially on budgetary and fiscal issues. Obama now fully understands that. In addition, Congress isn't obliged to pay much attention to a budget submitted by the president. Under a 1921 law, and a further law of 1974, the president is required to send a budget to Congress for the expenditures of the federal government. But Congress then goes through a committee process to essentially elaborate (or sometimes not) a budget of its own. Consequently, the president's budget is an opening shot in an often laborious and lengthy negotiating process. What was remarkable about Obama's budget this time was that he already compromised in some of his proposals, offering Republicans some minor negative adjustments in entitlement programs (national pensions, called 'Social Security' and medical care for the elderly, called 'Medicare') well into the future, which had the effect of angering his left-wing base in the Democratic party. Meanwhile, the Republicans rejected Obama's budget out of hand. So his budget pleased nobody but was a way of raising the issues that Congress needs to address, not an actual attempt to forecast the expenditures of the government. And at the same time, what nobody is talking about is the need to raise the debt ceiling yet again, which has to be decided in just one month's time.

On another domestic issue, Obama looks like he is making some progress, and that is tightening gun control. First this was urgent, after the Newtown massacre, then it faded from public view, now it looks like there may be stricter legislation. What happened and what is the outlook?
This is more Obama 1 than Obama 2, in other words the president using his office as a 'bully pulpit' rather than compromising. Gun ownership and gun control are intensely complicated in the United States. Americans basically believe they can do whatever they want unless it's expressly forbidden and enforced. Turn that sense of entitlement into a provision specifically permitting you to do something — in this case 'to bear arms' — enshrined in a document as semi-sacred as the American constitution and you create a situation that is virtually impossible to change. Then add to that the fact that the National Rifle Association is one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in Washington and you can be sure that getting votes in Congress for tighter gun control will meet enormous obstacles. At the same time, the public is becoming aware that the gun industry in the United States has achieved frightening levels of penetration of society, including the fact that the country's biggest retailer WalMart is also the biggest seller of guns in America, and people are beginning to realize that guns are now toys for boys — violent hobbies of young men — and far removed from the docile farmer patiently hunting deer on his own or his neighbor's land. Somebody encouraged the Newtown families to plant crosses in Washington DC and to speak up on national media and those families wrested the gun debate away from the lobbying organizations and put personal conscience back into the issue. In showcasing those families, Obama has succeeded in making the gun control debate about 'me' — my welfare, my children, my family, my community — rather than about 'them', other people who want to hunt animals or, now, bring video games to life or, more accurately, to death. That appeal to conscience, and to 'me', is why the procedural vote to debate gun control passed the Senate, but only just. The fact that the conservative, gun-owning, Democrat and Republican Senators Manchin and Toomey have come together on this issue shows excellent progress. But don't expect miracles. There may be some marginal tightening of background checks and restrictions on ammunition sales but there won't be a fundamental change in the gun culture, the gun industry or the gun lobby — nor in the questionable quirks of Congress.