Little time for Obama to celebrate

A divided country and a troubled world await the man tasked with four more years at the helm of the world¿s most powerful country.

The tasks ahead of the US's first African-American president remain as formidable and urgent as when he first took office. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
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WASHINGTON // He beat down a determined and angry challenge to his presidency and confounded history by winning re-election under poor economic conditions. But Barack Obama, the US president, will have little time to celebrate.

A divided country and a troubled world await the man tasked with four more years at the helm of the world's most powerful country. And the tasks ahead of the US's first African-American president remain as formidable and urgent as when he first took office.

His relatively comfortable margin of victory should not disguise what was a close-run election, one where it is far from clear what kind of mandate Americans have handed their returning president.

Nevertheless, the incumbent managed, narrowly, to hold on to seven - and depending on Florida where counting continues, maybe eight - of the election's nine swing states. That offered world leaders the chance to send their congratulations in early, and Mr Obama to declare during his victory speech in his hometown of Chicago that "the best is yet to come".

But multiple explosions in a Damascus neighbourhood yesterday were a sharp reminder that events wait for no man. Syria's civil war will demand attention sooner rather than later.

Mr Obama will also have to grapple with Iran's nuclear ambitions and Israeli threats to take unilateral military action against Tehran. Washington's efforts on Palestinian-Israel relations - an immediate priority of Mr Obama's first term - will also be closely watched, even as he seeks to pivot away from the Middle East and Afghanistan and towards Asia.

At home, meanwhile, and for all the sound and fury of the domestic campaign, the result thrown up by Tuesday's vote is essentially 'as you were'. Democrats retained control of the US Senate, and Republicans held on to their advantage in the House of Representatives.

Mr Obama may feel his convincing return to the White House has given him a mandate to push through his own vision for how to move the US forward. But Republicans could act as spoilers once more.

The stakes are high and will likely take priority over foreign policy in the near term. Mr Obama needs to come to terms with a huge domestic deficit and high unemployment that continue to threaten US economic growth.

His first task will be to deal with the so-called 'fiscal cliff', a package of US$600 billion (Dh2.2 trillion) in automatic tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts that will take effect on January 1 if the White House and Congress fail to agree on a budget deal.

Chances of success are mixed. John Boehner, the leading Republican in the House of Representatives, sounded a conciliatory note yesterday, saying the election had thrown up a "dual mandate … for both parties to find common ground".

But Mitch McConnell, his counterpart in the Senate, sounded far less compromising.

"The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president's first term," he said.

Indeed, with the potential for continued deadlock at home and his signature health-care reform now safe from repeal by a Republican presidency, Mr Obama may throw himself into foreign policy with far more vigour.

Congress has less ability to stand in his way on foreign relations. There is plenty to be done and traditionally second-term presidents can more easily try to secure a lasting legacy abroad than at home.

Domestic and foreign policy are not unrelated of course. His much-vaunted "pivot" away from a troublesome Middle East region and towards East Asia, is primarily an economic foreign policy, said Mark Perry, a Washington, DC-based independent military and political analyst.

The US will remain very much engaged in the Middle East, where priorities present themselves. On Syria, for instance, David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, has already said he was hoping the US and Britain would "do more" in Mr Obama's second term.

Freed from re-election considerations, Mr Obama may adopt a more aggressive posture.

"Red lines" are emerging in Syria, Mr Perry suggested. Spill over into Jordan would be unacceptable to the US, while a second term also sets "a limit to the kind of brutality that we can tolerate".

Iran's nuclear ambitions, meanwhile, will provide another test for Mr Obama. Though his outreach to Tehran has so far yielded little result, he proved himself keen to avoid military confrontation in his first term, and direct negotiations are a "logical next step" according to Mr Perry.

But for any such talks to take place, Israel must also be kept at bay and perhaps the most intriguing narrative to watch in Mr Obama's second term will be how relations between the two allies will develop.

During the election campaign, both Mr Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican rival, competed over who could present themselves as closer to Israel.

But personal relations between Mr Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, have been strained. Mr Obama found himself frustrated in his efforts to push forward a Palestinian-Israeli peace process in part because of Israel's refusal to agree to a comprehensive settlement construction freeze in all occupied territory.

The issue also continues to pose a problem for the US's relations with others in the region.

"The lack of a resolution [to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict] complicates our relations to our Arab allies," said Mr Perry. "We are tired of that complication."

Democracy, Mr Obama said in his victory speech in the early hours of yesterday in Chicago, "can be noisy and messy and complicated".

He was talking about the angry and negative tone of the "hard fought" election campaign. But he could have been describing what lies ahead.

A hostile Congress, huge national debt and slow economic growth at home; Iranian nuclear ambitions, Israeli intransigence and Arab revolutions abroad.

Wherever he looks, Mr Obama's tasks for the next four years are all "noisy and messy and complicated."