Back to work, Obama

DRESSED IN THEIR BEST: US President Barack Obama greets supporters on stage with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia, left, and Sasha.
DRESSED IN THEIR BEST: US President Barack Obama greets supporters on stage with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia, left, and Sasha.

After a campaign marked by the relentless negativity of both main candidates and the obscenely huge amounts of money spent on it, Barack Obama has won a second term as president of the United States.

In doing so, he has won against the odds. No president since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s has won re-election with unemployment over 7 per cent. Obama has also become only the second Democrat since World War II to win election to the office twice (Bill Clinton in 1996 was the first).

But unlike four years ago, when Obama swept to office on a wave of elation, voters have this time plumped for him grudgingly over his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, although in the end the margin was greater than many had forecast. They have also left him with a House of Representatives and Senate whose Republican and Democrat majorities are unchanged from his last term, almost certainly heralding another four years of the bitter partisan wrangling that marked Obama's first term and virtually paralysed movement on many critical issues the nation faced.

The spirit of the country is certainly vastly different as Obama enters his second term. Although America stood on the brink of an economic precipice four years ago, Obama, either by being able to articulate in an inspiring fashion a new vision for America or, according to more cynical judgments, by low rhetorical tricks, was able to conjure a glad, confident morning feeling it had not felt since the Clinton years. Obama re-enters office with no such mood behind him. Indeed, even he, at times during the campaign seemed alarmingly under-enthusiastic about the prospect of another term.

Exit polls indicated that it was, as so often before, the economy that swung it. By all the usual measures, Obama should have lost. Unemployment is falling but with agonising slowness, growth, while rising, remains sluggish and feeble, and such buoyancy as there is in the economy is being maintained by unprecedentedly large quantities of money being riskily created by the country's central bank.

All these factors should have favoured Romney. Voters appear, however, to have given Obama the benefit of the doubt. Three-quarters of those polled after they voted said they saw the economy as poor or not so good, but they also saw the crisis as having been created by Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, and credited Obama with having saved the country from being plunged into another Great Depression. And while voters may have been impressed with Romney's business credentials, many were less convinced by his frustratingly vague proposals for addressing the country's many economic imbalances and alarmed at the prospect of far-Right prescriptions he might have been persuaded to adopt.

It is in their second terms that US presidents hope to create a legacy. As Obama enters his second term, formidable economic problems remain ahead of him. Tax cuts enacted by Bush are due to run out and huge cuts in government spending automatically kick in on January 1. This is the so- called "fiscal cliff" that threatens to put the country back in recession unless the White House and Congress can agree on new measures quickly.

The election, however, has left Washington's political leadership in as much of a gridlock as before. Obama is going to have to show far better political skills than he displayed last term if he is to negotiate his way around this problem and start building his legacy.

The Press