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Obama’s ‘Shopping List’

US President Barack Obama has delivered his fifth State of the Union address on Capitol Hill. As is custom, nay, the whole point of the speech – the President talked of the current state of affairs in the United States of America, focusing mainly on the economic position of the nation. There was a brief glance at America’s role in foreign affairs and diplomacy, in terms of Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran. And then Mr Obama laid out the plans and aspirations he has for his second and final term as President of the United States. The hour-long speech was replete with promises, some within reach and many others not even close to attainable.

The speech was much along the lines of that which he delivered in his second innauguration address on the hill. Again his words were based on hope and optimism, but the themes was far less muted than they were a little over four years ago before he became President. Aside from some specifics on the economy, gun control and climate change were key issues which Obama focused on. Again same-sex marriage rated a mention, albeit a not overly explicit one.

On the ABC24’s flagship current affairs program, The Drum there was a discussion and dissection of the speech, what it meant, what was in it and what parts of its’ contents will prove achievable for a President with nothing to lose. Most of that discussion had the realities of the situation in mind. It was abundantly clear to all panellists how difficult it would be for Obama to achieve much of the agenda set out today.

Jonathan Green, one of the guests on the show, described Obama’s list of policy goals as a “shopping list”. This is both an ill-fitting metaphor and an apt one for the policy agenda outlined by President Obama in the State of the Union address.

A shopping list is usually a list of things that you will buy and that are readily available on any given day. You go to the shops and they are there and you can usually afford them. They are within reach of everyone. Most of the items on Obama’s shopping list will simply prove to be well and truly out of reach.

There has been some reform on gun control in the form of executive orders, but more significant reform which requires legislative approval will likely prove impossible. Meaningful action on climate change and same-sex marriage will likely suffer the same fate. It is however a positive step that the conversation on both issues has recommenced after being neglected during the election campaign of 2012.

In a sense, the issues outlined by Barack Obama do constitute a metaphorical shopping list. Some of the prescriptions raised by Obama are entirely necessary, like staples on a shopping list. There needs to be action on climate change and gun control and immigration law changes to name but a few topics raised.

Many of the items on Obama’s shopping list were what you would term ‘luxury items’. This is true in a metaphorical sense anyway. They are such because they will prove unobtainable. These are items that are of course desirable – ones which you really want, but which are, for some reason, almost unobtainable.

How many items can President Obama tick off the list? In reality he faces a tough battle with Republicans on the hill in just about every major policy area.

The Struggle Ahead for Obama on Gun Control

A Rollicking Speech But What of Expectations Management?

President Obama romped home in yesterday’s presidential poll in the US. It was a famous victory that most pundits had been unwilling to contemplate, at least as far as the extent of the victory for the incumbent yesterday. We were told it would be pretty close, even during the early part of the coverage, but in the end the result was quite comfortable for Obama. It was not of 2008 proportions, nobody expected that, but it was a good win, a strong win nonetheless.

At present Barack Obama has 303 electoral college votes, ahead of rival Mitt Romney on 206. After being behind in the popular vote early on Tuesday night, the President has pulled far enough ahead for any questioning of the extent of the result to be out of the equation. The President has over 59 million votes and his challenger, Governor Romney, over 56 million.

That means four more years as the chant went. Another opportunity to attempt to turn the American economy around and another opportunity to try to implement aspects of an extensive progressive agenda.

Of course there were mixed results during the first two years of Obama’s presidency. With control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the President largely failed to work towards implementing large swathes of his policy agenda. This was partly down to the state of the economy and also as a result of a much less partisan political environment. Some Democrats often vote with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Mitt Romney was gallant and gracious in defeat, wishing the President all the best with very kind words during his concession speech late yesterday.

But it was the President that stole the headlines with a rollicking victory speech, the kind of oratory precision that Mr Obama is well and truly capable of and some may have thought was lost after some of his performances during the election campaign.

The speech was on a par with those leading up to his becoming President at the 2008 election and with his acceptance speech upon winning the Presidency. Again the President spoke of hope and opportunity for all, much in the same vein as those now famous speeches.

The speech was a vision more than an action plan. It was a look at what President Obama would like to do, what he values. It appeared more of a speech that a presidential challenger or first-term President having just won election, would deliver than it did the work of a second-term incumbent like Obama.

Of course, it was lacking in concrete policies and had some wild claims of reforms that Obama would like to pursue during his second term, like electoral reform, which will prove a massive and probably insurmountable challenge.

The speech undoubtedly excited a large number of people and that was the intention. Even people who do not agree with Mr Obama or his policies were in awe of the strong performance from the newly re-elected leader.

The President probably thought, going into his final term, that he could afford politically to give a speech like that, raising the expectations of the masses again. But whether or not that is smart is an entirely different proposition.

There are three factors that he would have needed to consider before appealing to people’s emotions like that.

The first is regarding his legacy. Does President Obama really want to be remembered for setting lofty goals and then struggling to achieve the vast majority of those aims?

Setting ambitious goals is something that progressive candidates do all the time, often setting too many tasks, failing to have time for some and not being able to successfully implement others. It can often be a significant reason for the failure of progressive governments in an electoral sense.

Progressive government is not inherently bad, but you must be able to manage expectations rather than overly excite them. It is better to be both a bit progressive and a bit conservative.

The second thing that Barack Obama should be wary about is the effect that the speech and its highly ambitious tenor might have on the campaign in four years time. What harm might another term of over-promising and under-delivering produce for the Democrat’s candidate in the 2016 presidential election.

There is one final thing that the President should have had in mind before delivering the speech. There is no extra money in the budget for anything. The United States of America is truly struggling fiscally and that could become a much deeper problem in the coming weeks.

It was a good speech, even a great speech. However, good speeches do not always make or mean good leaders, but they do help us remember them.

This Is the Political Story of a Hurricane

Post Tropical Storm Sandy has now vanished from the skies above the United States of America. In its wake it has left at least 90 dead with the final death toll likely to be higher than that. The hurricane has also resulted in billions of dollars damage to cities along the east coast of the USA. Now that the storm has passed, attention first and foremost has turned to the recovery with FEMA and the US President hitting the ground running. The US President has toured areas hit by the natural disaster and FEMA have commenced their post-disaster efforts.

Despite the fact that a tragedy has just transpired, the US election, which has seen an intriguing campaign so far, is still going ahead. Polling day is now less than a week away and after a brief ceasefire, electoral hostilities have resumed in key swing states across the country.

Inevitably, thought has turned to the effects that the hurricane has had on the campaign and might have on the outcome on election day. Would the storm help or hinder Barack Obama and end Mitt Romney’s chances or would it end Barack Obama’s hopes for re-election? Or would the storm have left the electoral equation relatively unchanged?

It would appear that there are two main scenarios which could play out as a result of Hurricane Sandy. But there is also the possibility of a third effect brought on by the tropical storm.

The first is the really obvious one. This is the one that seems to be in the mind’s and on the lip’s of many political commentators. That is that the devastation gives President Obama a chance to appear presidential, an interesting conclusion given that President is exactly what Barack Obama currently is.

This theory holds that the President, through responding to the crisis, will gain electoral momentum thanks to the horrific events which have killed so many, not just in the USA, but also throughout parts of the Caribbean.

Whether or not this theory holds any credibility is largely down to the states involved in the hurricane, with the broader populace probably not as concerned about Barack Obama appearing presidential as a result of something that does not affect them. Most of the directly hit states are well and truly in the bag for either side, save for Virginia and North Carolina.

The theory of looking presidential with strong and swift actions after a tragic event could also be applied to Mitt Romney. It is somewhat arguable that appearing presidential as the challenger could have more of a benefit than the incumbent coming across to voters in the same way.

Governor Romney quickly hit the bellwether state of Ohio for what was termed a ‘ hurricane relief event’. At this outing, Obama’s adversary organised for donations of food and other goods to be sent to storm-hit areas of the country.

This event and others like it as well as Romney’s responses regarding the awful events of earlier this week mean that he could also appear presidential to voters. Again, whether this matters is debatable, though with Governor Romney enjoying most of the electoral momentum, small gains could make a difference.

The other theory is that Sandy might be responsible for halting the momentum of the campaign.

This theory offers more negative consequences for the President than it does for Mitt Romney. Effectively, if this was the case it would mean that two days were removed from Barack Obama’s last week and a bit of the campaign. This means two less days campaigning for votes.

The final effect is mostly a positive for the sitting President, at least for the period of time it was in play.

It is within the realms of reason, even self-evident, that the hurricane provided a distraction for up to almost a week from the real issue that Americans will be voting on when Tuesday next week rolls around. For that time, news of the economy and debate about it would have played second fiddle to the approaching winds and rain.

Whether or not two days of almost zero talk about the has resulted in a change of the complexion of the campaign seems unlikely. The storm is over now too and the focus of the campaign has largely returned to domestic issues.

It would appear that any benefit for either Republicans or Democrats, President Obama or Mitt Romney, derived from the storm that hit the east coast, is small or even negligible. Stranger things have happened though. Who would have thought that a debate would result in quite a dramatic shift in voter intentions?

With less than a week to go in a tough contest, the result is still anyone’s, even with a hurricane thrown into the equation.

A Romney Win and Another Magic Act

The first Presidential debate of 2012 has passed. Expectations were, with Mitt Romney behind in the polls so close to the election in early November, that the debates were make or break for Mr Romney. Still recovering from recent gaffes, Tuesday night in Denver had to be the start of a recovery for the Republican challenger. For at least the first half of the 90 minute to-and-fro, Romney had the upper-hand, clearly outplaying his usually suave and confident political adversary, President Obama. Overall, Governor Romney came out of the experience the winner.

The normal confidence of the President just wasn’t there. It was as if the roles had shifted. Mr Romney was the one that looked and sounded confident, maintaining eye contact and a confident stance throughout. The incumbent Obama, on the other hand, failed to keep eye contact with his opponent and the audience, constantly writing down notes, something he’s rarely relied on in the past. The only one with less control on the debate was the moderator, broadcaster Jim Lehrer, who may as well not have been there.

Just what effect today’s effective win will have for the Republican candidate is debatable. Most likely, this first debate will not dramatically alter the contest as it stands, it’s just the first outing. There will probably be an improvement in the polls for Mitt Romney and the Republican campaign, but this won’t be dramatic.  Likely, any improvement will be a matter of one or two percent, if that.

What today’s outcome will do is breathe some life into the challenger’s campaign. The stronger performance will give the Republican party some much-needed confidence that after a tough couple of weeks in particular. It will convince strategists there still might be a glimmer of hope for that one day in November when voters will be asked to vote for another four years of President Obama or entrust Governor Mitt Romney and his Republican Party with government. The performance today is much more a psychological win than it will be a dramatic vote-winner.

One of the most interesting elements of the contest today was the seeming abandonment of some political differences between the two sides of politics in favour of a degree of “me tooism”. In particular, the Republican nominee seemed to be making the case that he was not going to be embarking on some of the dramatic policy shifts he’s announced, that at worst in a few areas, he’d be taking Obama’s policies and tinkering with them.

In fact today’s performance from Mitt Romney displayed elements of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s so-called “Howard lite” campaign. For Americans, Howard lite refers to policy and political positioning of Kevin Rudd as basically John Howard, but with some improvements, meant to paint Kevin Rudd as a change to the former Prime Minister John Howard, but not a dramatic one.

The interesting thing about this posturing is the longevity of it. The pretend similarities, most of them, lasted until the election had been run and won in late November 2007. Fewer similarities remained from then on. That’s likely how the outcome in US politics too. This sudden need to appear only slightly different in terms of policy to the Democrat administration would be thrown away early on in a Romney administration. The similarities exist in words only, not in deeds. In fact, these likenesses are actually a politically constructed illusion.

If these similarities were to continue and actually be implemented as policy, then they would have a serious impact on the budget. But of course, cuts are and need to be, in reality, the order of the day. However debate over what is and is not cut should continue.

Mitt Romney clearly won the debate, but today was only a battle. The war for the White House rages on for another four weeks. Governor Romney can claim to have the upper hand today but he is probably still behind in the overall conflict. Maintaining belief in the so-called similarities? Well, that’s a completely different magic act altogether.

If We Get a US Military Base Our Trade Partner China Will Not Dislike Or Attack Us

Over the last few days there has been growing speculation that there will be an announcement of a US military base in Darwin. This prediction/speculation/possible truth comes ahead of the visit of US President Barack Obama this Wednesday and Thursday to Australia, which includes a stop in the Northern Territory.

This increasingly likely announcement has attracted largely positive talk and the usual criticism from the Australian Greens, along with calls for parliament to debate the issue. Further, there have also been claims that US military presence in Australia would annoy our trading partner, China.

So is a US military base a good thing for Australia? Should we let forces from other nation’s base themselves on our shores? Do we really need to debate it in parliament? Will it really annoy China?
First things first, the Greens under leader Bob Brown are calling for parliament to debate the issue if it is indeed formally announced by the US President and the Gillard Government this week. This is not an altogether bad idea to debate the issue and get on record in Hansard the opinion’s of parliamentarians. However, it must be acknowledged that this may largely be a waste of time as it is likely the Greens would be the only party against the move.
Picture this: If, heaven forbid,  Australia comes under attack in the future from a rogue state (we likely won’t) and we had to invoke ANZUS, wouldn’t it be easier if at least one of our partners had a permanent presence here, from facilities as strongly equipped as a base?
Would our relationship with China really suffer as a result of a US military presence on Australian shores in the future?
Firstly, the level of anxiety between the USA and China to me seems well and truly overstated in terms of the militarisation of China. It seems much more reasonable to me to say that most of the anxiety from the United States toward China has more to do with the rapidly gathering economic strength of China, which holds a large amount of debt bonds for nations around the world, than with the concurrent military build-up in China.
It is not likely, in my view that having a US base on Australian shores will hurt the trade or diplomatic relationship that our two nations are growing to mutually enjoy. After all, it is just a base and last time I checked, a simple military base was not necessarily an outward act of aggression. If it was, with the sheer number of US bases around the world, we would have seen more major conflicts well and truly before now. Just think of the places around the world where the United States of America stayed behind post World War II.
So really, what is all the fuss about? Is it perhaps about the uneasy feelings which the Greens seem to have toward the US in all matters of defence? Is it a fear of the tiniest of possibilities which creep into the minds of conspiracy theorists? It could be. The base can happen, and should happen if announced. It won’t hurt our trade our diplomatic relations with China, especially not in a lasting way and it will provide for bolstered defense of our nation in the unlikely event of an attack on our country. So let’s do it and do it right. We can be friends and trading partners with China as well as military allies with the United States of America, we were a long time before we traded with China on such a large scale and the Chinese never seemed to mind…
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