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Full steam ahead

Antje Passenheim, Washington / db January 8, 2014

US President Barack Obama is scheduled to give his annual State of the Union address on January 28. Social equality is just one of the issues at the top of his political agenda ahead of crucial midterm elections.

Barack Obama
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

The US President is sure to fondly remember his golf games during his recent holiday break in Hawaii. In 2014, however, Obama will have more on his mind than hitting the golf course. "I firmly believe that 2014 can be a break-through year in America," he told reporters in Washington.

From an economic point of view, the basis for a break-through is better than it has been in years, according to William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The fiscal drag from government policy is ending, US exports are doing well and manufacturing is trending up," the expert on domestic policy told DW. "There has been a substantial amount of what's called deleveraging - at least in US households - not in the US government, unfortunately."

"The stock market is going well, the job market is improving," Neil King, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, wrote recently. The reporter sees but a "limited chance for real opportunity between the president and Congress." Galston agrees: "The prospects for a formative, non-routine legislation are not very bright in 2014."

Exasperating issues

Mainly, the reservations apply to two issues carried over from 2013: the NSA's activities and health reform. In January, Obama is expected to announce whether he will actually reform of the intelligence agencies - a move demanded by a group of experts. It also remains to be seen whether his controversial health reform will gain momentum following its disastrous start. Obamacare is designed to guarantee affordable health care to about 30 million Americans who previously had no health insurance at all.

William Galston Copyright: Antje Passenheim, DW
Obama either "gets the policy or the issue he wants," says GalstonImage: DW/A. Passenheim

Despite an overhaul of the troubled federal enrolment website, only about seven million people have registered for Obamacare so far. The pace of registrations will have pick up soon if the project is to be successful.

New addition

In February, Congress is set to focus on the seemingly never-ending debt issue. Raising the debt ceiling is bound to become the first major showdown this year, Galston says, adding that the Republican Party will want some policy compensation for allowing the debt limit to go up again. "The president has said that he will not negotiate on that subject," the former political advisor to President Bill Clinton points out.

Observers say Obama has already embarked on a major confrontation course in 2014. The president recently brought in Clinton-era veteran strategist John Podesta to push ahead on issues Obama thinks are important - like climate control - outside of the legislative branch, the Wall Street Journal's King says. "That's a pretty good indication that the main game for him is not necessarily going to be in Congress."

Obama and sign for health reform
Obamacare has yet to take offImage: picture-alliance/dpa

If that were the case, Obama would be ill-advised, Galston says, adding that first and foremost, the president is obligated to his country to find a compromise. Only in an emergency can an executive order be the next step.

The president would be well-advised to act accordingly, Galston adds, particularly because he might spare himself confrontation on issues like extending unemployment insurance and raising the minimum wage.

The Democrats want to raise the nationwide minimum wage from currently $7,25 (5,32 euros) per hour to $10 - preferably ahead of congressional midterm elections. "Even Republicans who are not very happy about either of those measures will find a way of agreeing with them, subject to certain conditions," Galston argues. "I don't think that many Republicans want to go into the fall, contesting the midterm elections having blocked the increase of minimum wage and the extension of unemployment benefits."

Under pressure

A similar fate may await the upcoming immigration legislation reform Obama pledged and has been kicking down the road since the 2008 election campaign. Last year, the Senate proposed an immigration reform bill guaranteeing citizenship to 12 million undocumented residents in turn for increased security on the Mexican border. The draft was scuppered by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. But the conservatives are also well-aware of the value of Hispanic votes - which may be to the president's advantage, according to Galston: "He either gets the policy that he wants, or the issue that he wants."

Obama may do less well in terms of his foreign policy challenges. The violence in the wake of the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, the difficult pull-out from Afghanistan, the civil war in Syria and tough negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians - after 12 years of almost continuous war deployments, most Americans are now more concerned with rebuilding their own country, says Galston. "In the short term, the president will make points with the American people by ending military involvement in the region - not by reengaging."

US soldeirs, helicopter, jeeps
The US faces many foreign policy challengesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Despite a win for Obama on some points, many observers believe the Republicans are set to enter the November midterm elections with a strong tail wind.

The unfortunate start to Obamacare, a plunge in his approval ratings to an all-time low and the US public's resentment of NSA phone surveillance practices are a heavy load to bear - and the Republicans plan to take advantage of it.

They have the majority in the House of Representatives and they want the Senate, too: to that end, they need six more seats in the smaller legislative chamber, and this year, five Democratic Senate seats will be up for re-election.

One thing is clear: Obama should tackle whatever political plans he may have in 2014. This time next year, his successor will be chomping at the bit. A Quinnipiac University poll sees former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dominating the potential presidential field.