By Haridos Apostolides, US Correspondent 

What can we expect from Barack Obama?

What can be expected from Obama in 2014?

The current United States Congress, one of the most powerful legislative branches of government in the world, has been the most ineffective since the dawn of the Republic. How ineffective? Of the 5,700 bills proposed last year in both the Senate and House of Representatives, only 56, less than one per cent, were made into law.

Many have pointed the finger at the Tea Party as the cause of this democratic ineffectiveness. With demands for a more conservative approach of governance, moderates have since been voted out of work. Those willing to compromise with the opposition have become enemies by those who declared their anti-Obama platform; anti-health care reform, anti-immigration reform, anti-gay marriage, anti-gun-control… You name it, they oppose it.

This inability to negotiate has caused the largest number of filibusters in the Senate as well as the first government shutdown since the 1990s. And as evidenced above, not much else has been accomplished.

Yet in January, Obama announced during his State of the Union address delivered to both houses of Congress and a large television audience that enough is enough:

Some [proposals] require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you.  But America does not stand still – and neither will I.  So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do. 

With Congress having an approval rating of around 16 per cent, many admire the president’s forceful approach. Others have questioned his remarks; unlike legislation, subsequent office holders can repeal any of Obama’s executive orders that only offer short-term solutions.

But what can be expected of Obama? This is the question being posed, as there is much doubt over Congress’ ability to achieve much more than stonewalling Obama’s ambitious agenda.

First up: Minimum Wage

The minimum wage amounts to $7.25 per hour, which the left believes is unsustainable for those who are just trying to get by. The growth of the middle class is the main Democratic focus; a strong middle allows for those who are lower to easily work their way up. The more money in this class breeds more consumerism, which appeases those in the highest brackets as their profits increase.

On the other side, many Republicans question the practicality of a rise. Some claim that thousands of jobs would be lost due to businesses trying to cope with increasing corporate taxes. Speaker of the House John Boehner stated, “When you raise the cost of something, you get less of it.” Others ask that since certain workers, such as fast-food employees, didn’t need to gain qualifications to work why would they need a higher wage? Those from the far right declare that an increase would encourage both greed and laziness from people who are the “bottom feeders” of society, already cashing in on the government’s generous hand-outs.

While Obama puts more pressure on a Congress intent on stalling this issue, the president has already issued an executive order to increase the pay for future federal workers to $10.10. Although those already in service will lose out on a hike, the general consensus of the president’s action has been good. New hope for the rest of the nation now rests on the representatives on Capitol Hill.

What’s next: Immigration

Like many points in his speech, Obama already asked Congress to fix immigration reform in his last address. Yet this year looks like it is time for a game of political poker: he who has the best hand, and so on.

Both parties in the Senate have already produced a bill that would allow illegal immigrants already in the US to get on the pathway to citizenship. Many of these refugees come from South America, and with the Democrats desperate to win control of the House in November, they are hoping the ever-rising Latino population will help. The left, nonetheless, do not have to force any legislation through. They already have a strong advantage over the GOP and can simply lie in wait to show their hand. As David Welna wrote, “failure to do anything on immigration will likely further erode the GOP’s already low standing with Latino voters.”

Soon after the State of the Union, Speaker Boehner announced that immigration reform would be at the forefront of the legislative agenda. He has since reversed this, declaring that Obama cannot be trusted to fully execute “the reform that we’re talking about”.

Rumours for Boehner’s change of mind have engulfed Democratic circles: the right are deliberately halting Obama-approved action and are instead waiting on a Republican president so that reform will be seen as a Republican win. The electoral math apparently has not been lost on them either.

Crossing borders…

As I confronted in an earlier article, the US is at the heart of the Iran nuclear talks which will see a reduction in production of the weapons and access for UN inspectors with the promise of the US lifting embargos on the controversial Middle Eastern nation.

Senate Republicans and some Democrats, however, had a massive problem with the US suddenly becoming pals with what has long been considered America’s number one adversary (probably to the irritation of North Korea). A bill to inflict new sanctions on Iran should they default on the proposed deal is still circulating the upper chamber. The president, angered by the hostility to “peace” has all but told the Senate to butt out of the talks.

“I will be the first to call for more sanctions,” he announced, should Iran not live up to their promises. It was this subject that seemed to launch the president onto his isolationist policies. Yet, while there are severe limitations to what he can do regarding national matters, the Iran issue has been clear from the start: Obama, and only Obama, will handle this, and the Senate will be asked to intervene when required.

And while we’re in the Middle East…

2014 is the year where America ceases conflict with Afghanistan.

Obama has promised for a few years now that forces will be pulled out of the nation at the end of this year, calling a for an end to George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ and a close on “America’s longest war”.

There are, however, continued talks with the current Afghan government about a number of troops remaining in the region beyond the 2014 threshold. An immediate withdrawal has often been cited as a potential cause of chaos. US men and women thus may remain in Afghanistan “with NATO allies” for “training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida.”

And what of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba? The prison for America’s most wanted terrorists has, for years, been subject to rumour of torturous activities, with little being done to counteract it. Obama promised in his early days that closing ‘Gitmo’ was a major priority and maybe in his last three years he’ll finally meet his pledge.

Of course there is one little problem facing Obama: Congress. Having restricted the transfer of these prisoners to institutes on American soil, many do not want to see the base closed while many inhabit the guarded walls. Those with constituents on the far right will face challenges from those who firstly don’t want extreme terrorists in their borders, and secondly don’t want America to appear weak on terrorism. Even with his impassioned remarks about countering terrorism not just through “military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals”, it’s unlikely that the devout conservative factions were convinced.

Now what happens?

Unfortunately, not that much. The president will be spending his time raising awareness and support for his policies from the people. Meanwhile Congress has already removed immigration from debate in the House. Although congressional progress is fairly unpredictable, especially this Congress, both parties know that the legislature cannot operate as before. Although Democrats are likely to be in a more comfortable position than the GOP, the Republicans will risk being viewed as obstructionists.

What can be promised is that, in an election year, whether or not you have a job come November is more important than fulfilling your duties.

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