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President Obama's new road map

By Andrew Hammond

Barack Obama makes his State-of-the Union speech on Tuesday 12 February. The landmark occasion, which follows quickly upon his inauguration address last month, will lay out a more detailed roadmap of his priorities for 2013 and beyond.

It is already clear that Obama's second term domestic ambitions include gun control, immigration reform, and securing a long-term fiscal grand bargain to strengthen the economic recovery.

Beyond this, there are key uncertainties such as what additional emphasis and measures he will seek over the next four years to help tackle climate change.

This is potentially a very ambitious domestic agenda, but prospects for Obama securing a string of major legislative successes to enable it are not very high. Republicans (including the significant Tea Party caucus), who were so at odds with his first-term agenda, have maintained their firm grip of the House of Representatives, and a sizeable minority in the Senate.

So Washington has the obvious potential for four more years of intense polarisation and gridlock. This and several other factors are likely to encourage Obama, like numerous other second-term presidents in the postwar period, to increasingly turn his focus toward foreign policy.

The fact that Obama's second term, from the vantage point of domestic policy, may not be an especially productive one is not unusual for re-elected incumbents. During their first period in the White House, presidents usually succeed in enacting several core priorities — as Obama did with health care and his economic stimulus package.

In the next four years, Obama will achieve some further domestic policy success, including the sizeable possibility of agreement with Congress on immigration reform. However, many re-elected presidents in the postwar era have found it difficult to acquire momentum behind an array of significant new legislative measures.

In part, this is because the party of re-elected presidents often hold a weaker position in Congress in second presidential terms of office. Thus, Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972 and Bill Clinton in 1996 were all re-elected alongside Congresses where both the House of Representatives and Senate were controlled by their partisan opponents.

The productiveness of second terms can also be stymied by turnover of key personnel. Following re-election success, there's a sizable departure of cabinet, White House and other executive branch officials.

For instance, Obama's second term cabinet will include much change, including a new Treasury and Energy secretary, plus a new Environmental Protection administrator. The problem for the president is that it is not always easy to recruit figures of the same status and calibre as those that leave and even when this happens, they can fail to hit the ground running.

Two other issues have undercut the productiveness of second-term presidencies. First, re-elected administrations have often been affected by scandals (although the events that trigger the scandals can happen during first terms). Thus, Watergate ended the Nixon administration in 1974, Iran-contra badly damaged the Reagan White House, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998.

It remains to be seen if any major scandals will affect the Obama administration. However, some Republicans, including Senator John McCain, have already brought Obama to task in Congress on what they perceive as his team's cover-up of the events surrounding the killing of four US citizens in Libya, including the US ambassador, last September.

Even if Obama and his administration escape significant scandal, he won't be able to avoid the lame-duck factor. Since he can't seek more than two terms, political focus will inevitably be diverted elsewhere, particularly after the 2014 congressional elections when the 2016 presidential campaign kicks into gear.

This overall domestic policy context means that Obama is likely to place increasing emphasis on foreign policy in the next four years. This is especially likely if the economic recovery builds pace in coming months.

Foreign policy could become an especially strong point of focus almost immediately if Israel ups the ante with Iran on the latter's nuclear programme. An Israeli strike, with or without the support of Washington, remains a real possibility in 2013. This issue thus has the potential to pose major headaches for Obama, and will require extremely skilled statesmanship.

A stress on foreign policy will be reinforced by a desire to establish a legacy. Previous presidents have often seen foreign policy initiatives as a part of the legacy they wish to build; Clinton, for instance, devoted much of his second term trying to secure a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis.

A decade and a half later, with still no deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, other areas are just as key to any eventual foreign policy legacy for Obama. In particular, following the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the intended drawdown in Afghanistan, the president will seek to continue his post-9/11 reorientation of foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region and other strategic high-growth markets.

Key threats on the horizon to maintaining this reorientation of policy remain the possibility of further devastating attacks on the US homeland from Al Qaeda, or a major surge of tension in North Africa, or the Middle East, perhaps emanating from Israeli-Iranian conflict or the implosion of Syria. However, these scenarios would only reinforce Obama's focus on foreign policy in his second term.

* Andrew Hammond is an associate

partner at ReputationInc. He was

formerly US editor at Oxford

Analytica and a special adviser in

the UK Government of Tony Blair.

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