Barack Obama's 10 biggest challenges in 2012

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Now that 2011 has faded to black, let’s explore some of the major issues President Barack Obama will face in the coming year.


Redistricting, Gerrymandering and Voter ID Laws

On many levels, Republicans have been running a non-stop campaign since November 5, 2008 to recapture the White House and defeat Barack Obama. Indeed, it was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who said his number one priority was to defeat the president in 2012.

The GOP knows that despite the economic lag and slow recovery, Obama remains extremely popular with the American public. As such, they have waged a strategic war that uses legal, though immoral, tools to suppress the Democratic vote. Namely, redistricting, which has handed over previously Democratic voting districts, to Republicans; and restrictive voter identification laws that disproportionately affect African-Americans, Hispanics, young college age voters, the elderly and the poor: all of whom are demographics most likely to vote for the president in 2012.

Redistricting, which occurs every 10 years after the census count, is left to state legislatures. After the success of Tea Party candidates in 2010, many states, especially in the South, have Republican-controlled legislatures, allowing then to redraw the lines in a manner that benefits the GOP. That method of manipulating voting boundaries is called ‘gerrymandering’, and the direct result is that a minority of a state’s voters can actually elect a majority of its representatives. The GOP is using this method, in addition to sweeping new voter-id laws, to sway the 2012 vote in their direction.

But it appears Obama has a secret weapon in Attorney General Eric Holder, who last week blocked South Carolina’s new voter law, which he said does not meet the standards set by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Holder’s team are also reviewing new voter requirements in Texas, where the new law bars students from using their student ID to vote, but a concealed weapons license is sufficient. Similar laws in Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin are also under review, and since most of the recent presidential elections have been decided in close battles, every vote must count.


Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Beyond the GOP’s concerted effort to win by suppression and obstruction, Obama faces the sleeping economic giant: American joblessness.

Reports last month showing the unemployment rate decreased to 8.6 percent was good political news for the president. But the underlying Labor Statistics reveal many of the long-term unemployed have simply stopped looking for work. This isn’t good news for the nation, the economy or candidate Obama, as it shows the effects of the Great Recession are having a sustained, systemic impact on the American jobs market.

In September, President Obama boldly introduced the American Jobs Act which, if enacted, could create as many as 2 million new jobs according to the CBO, but like much of Obama’s plans has been obstructed by House Speaker Boehner and the Tea Party Caucus.

Obama’s challenge, especially in an election year, facing an incalcitrant Congress, will be to find ways to stimulate the economy, convince the American voter that his approach has worked, and that the Stimulus package actually had a real and positive impact. Given research that shows how many jobs were saved or created because of Obama’s actions means the stars are aligned in his favor, but with so many people still struggling to find employment, it remains a hard sale.


Health care Reform

The Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s chief legislative victory, has also become his greatest political liability. Demonized by Republicans so effectively it helped fuel the Tea Party rise and success in the 2010 mid-term elections, health care reform (more widely known by its moniker ‘Obamacare’) will face its greatest challenge when the U.S. Supreme Court decides on its constitutionality.

A tactic of the right-wing, anti-Obama agenda which took root in 2009 included a nationwide challenge in Federal court by Republican State Attorney Generals, claiming the ‘individual mandate’ was unconstitutional. Following various decisions in different Federal district courts, the Supreme Court was all but forced to hear the case due to its national and historic importance. The March hearing will likely lead to a decision in June or July, right in the midst of the heated race for the White House.

Political strategists think if the mandate is ruled constitutional by the conservative-leaning court, it will be a big win for Obama.

However, if the ‘individual mandate’ loses its constitutional battle the other provisions of Obamacare will survive, which means the legislation will be sent back to Congress for changes. Pelosi, Reid and Obama will be back in the saddle and perhaps able to deliver on a more progressive Affordable Care Act, especially if Democrats unseat incumbents come November, and the power shifts in the House of Representatives.

The best strategy Obama can employ now is reminding voters that his plan has given families broader coverage and more options. Sick children can no longer be denied coverage, patients with pre-existing conditions are protected and parents can now use their own insurance to cover their unemployed, adult children until the age of 26.

That is care, and change, still worth believing in.


“Si, se puede? O no?”

Crowds of Latinos, who felt a kinship with candidate Obama and identified with his multicultural background, came out in droves in 2008, reflecting the mantra, “Si, se puede!” But these past few years Republicans have driven a sharp wedge between Hispanics and the general populous, calling for an inhumane approach to illegal immigration — and insisting on policies that could separate families from their loved ones and damage the workforce in the process. Obama’s hopes to see a new progressive approach to immigration reform, known as the Dream Act, was filibustered by Senate Republicans, despite passage by the House and bipartisan support.

An Arizona Immigration law, which empowers police to stop, search and arrest anyone they suspect is an illegal immigrant, was lauded by conservatives despite being a clear example of a state seeking to legislate racial-profiling. Not since the days of Jim Crow has a political effort been so blatantly racist and xenophobic. Although Barack Obama fulfilled his obligations in creating measures to secure America’s borders, the President has maintained that America must continue its rich, centuries-old legacy of embracing immigrants, whose hard work helped build the nation.

The GOP has responded with visceral verbal attacks on Hispanics, telling government to ‘turn off the magnet’, and enact more stringent policies that discourage what they call ‘anchor babies’. With one in six U.S. residents being Latino, Republicans have alienated a major voting bloc.

As a result, Obama has a unique opportunity to secure the Latino vote. But it’s a challenge, mostly because under Obama’s presidency deportations of illegal immigrants has increased 30 percent: a fact any GOP candidate will happily exploit during the general election. And across the South, anti-immigrant legislation passed by newly-elected Republican majorities, has had a disastrous affect on migrant farm workers, leaving many Hispanics without jobs, or forced to relocate. This places a huge burden on working families, at a time the unemployment rate is especially higher for minority communities. Discouraged workers could become discouraged voters, and as such, stay home.

Obama must now concentrate on spreading his message more effectively. He needs to talk locally about what he’s done for the Latino community on Education and Healthcare, and show how ‘Obamacare’ is saving lives and increasing coverage for families, at affordable rates.

Most importantly the President can change the negative tone on immigration, and focus on the fact that most Latino’s in this country are native born American citizens. The Republican mischaracterization that all Latinos are “other” or “illegal” must be juxtaposed by an inclusive Obama approach. That will help him win in the general election, and remind Hispanics they have a friend in the Oval office.

A key factor next year is that the Supreme Court has also agreed to hear legal challenges to Arizona’s controversial new immigration policy which has served as a model for other States. Depending on that decision, the rights of Latino voters will be widely affected. Experts are divided on how the court will rule. Even if the Arizona law is found not to be a violation of civil liberties, the decision will hopefully come with guidelines and restrictions that limit police authority.

However the Court rules, odds remain high Latino-Americans will vote for Obama in 2012. A recent poll published by the Pew Research Center shows that 68 percent of Hispanic voters say they will support Barack Obama in the general election, over 23 percent who said they would support Mitt Romney. This is encouraging and likely to stay steady and increase as long as Obama speaks a language all Hispanics and non-Latinos understand: jobs.


Content and Character at the Ballot Box

I pointed out in a recent article that Republicans have been very skillful at persuading poor whites to vote against their own economic interests. Even at a time of unprecedented economic crisis, in which the middle-class is disappearing and income inequality is on the rise, GOP policies still favor the wealthy: asking voters to sign-off on lower taxes for the top 1 percent, eliminating taxes for corporations, and less financial and environmental regulations, which only serves to place more money in the pockets of big business.

Ever since the Southern Strategy employed by the Republican Party during the 1964 presidential election, many poor Southern whites and throughout the Midwest have voted for the GOP. Ronald Reagan further solidified this demographic, leading to the phenomenon known as ‘Reagan Democrats’, by appealing to disgruntled working-class whites in States like Ohio and Pennsylvania, who were suspicious of what they saw as a Democratic penchant for welfare economics, and an increasingly secular, urban culture.

But high poverty rates for poor and working-class whites have now been exacerbated by the 2008 economic crisis. Census reports reveal that 31 million of the 46 million people in poverty in America are white, with white children representing 57 percent of all rural poor and 44 percent of the urban poor. This is a demographic sorely in need of progressive answers, and President Obama must find ways to convince them to vote Democratic in 2012.

It’s a challenge, since race-baiting has been the GOP’s favorite tool for maintaining the working-class white vote, and the rise of the Tea Party has only served to widen the gap. But Obama’s approval ratings are on the rise, even in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. His decision to rescue the auto industry in 2009 and the recent insistence on a payroll tax extension and unemployment benefits, has surely aided his cause by showing the poor and those struggling to find work, that he’s the one fighting for them.

These are policies which have no color or creed, but help everyone in need.

If the president can keep that message clear when Republicans distort his record, Obama may well build a coalition that wins in crucial battleground States.


99 problems and a Job is 1.

The fervent Tea Party activism that gave birth to a neo-conservative electoral force, has been replaced this year by the grassroots soul of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. However, unlike the Tea Party which is uniquely American, OWS went global. From New York to Los Angeles to South Africa’s Johannesburg, across Europe and Asia. The anger directed at the economic elite and governments for their failure to adequately protect citizens, is being felt everywhere.

Born from the spirit of the Arab Spring, which saw thousands of young men and women in Africa’s Tunisia, Egypt and Libya topple oppressive regimes, OWS rallies against big business and plutocracy.

Obama’s challenge will be to harness that energy and motivate those young people and union workers to get out the vote on his behalf. The mortgage crisis and global recession has taken its toll, and many progressives are not as enthusiastic about the president’s campaign in ways we saw in 2008. Rallying the base, and securing independents may be difficult, but given the Republican alternatives, will prove possible.

On the flip-side, because of Obama’s financial reform measures helping to protect consumers, Wall Street bankers have turned their support to like-minded multi-millionaire, Mitt Romney, whose platform calls for the dismantling of Dodd-Frank and other financial regulatory measures.

What the president must do is effectively communicate that it was that very approach which created this crisis to begin with.


Blue States, Red States and Purple America

In such a polarizing political climate, it’s hard to hear the voices that aren’t shouting.

The truth of the matter is that modern American elections tend to be decided by independent voters, who aren’t loyal to either party. As a result, Obama will first ensure his progressive base is with him. There appear no signs of worry, with Latinos, liberals, environmentalists, gay and lesbian voters and his most loyal supporters of all, African-Americans, firmly in the president’s camp.

Where his attention needs to be now is on independent voters. The 2008 election was a great example of just how to pull it off, as the president surprisingly took key states like Indiana and Virginia, neither of which had voted Democratic in the last 11 elections since 1964. Florida too, the scene of the bitter 2000 battle between Bush and Gore, came firmly into the Obama column. Replicating that success will require more substance than style. Obama and his economic team will be working hard to bring the unemployment rate down to 8 percent. European economic stability is a huge factor, so Obama’s challenge will be to find domestic solutions.

Fortune favors the brave, and the latest Washington Post/ABC news poll shows Obama approval numbers rebounding among independent voters. The president regained advantage over the Republican-controlled Congress when it came to “protecting the middle class.” And 50 percent say they trust Obama, compared with 35 percent who chose the GOP. Maintaining the momentum and controlling the message he lost in the first two years of his presidency, will be a deciding factor in swaying the purple vote to blue.


Iraq, Afghanistan and Now What?

For all Ron Paul’s faults, and there are many, he has rightly warned against the growing propaganda machine which seems to be paving the way for a U.S. military engagement with Iran.

This is dangerous for two reasons; firstly, it will further destabilize the Middle East at a time of sweeping political change across North Africa and the Arab world. Secondly, Iran may, in fact, already have developed nuclear capabilities. This places Israel in a precarious position, and could turn catastrophic if an already radical Iranian government chooses to act boldly in its defense against what it sees as American imperialistic force. Obama certainly doesn’t want Armageddon on his watch, but he also can’t afford to be seen as soft on foreign policy and nuclear threats.

Given his successes so far, from bin Laden, to Libya’s Gaddafi and Egypt’s Mubarak, and the timely withdrawal from Iraq, it seems this President is adept at maneuvering foreign diplomacy. Iran will prove a challenge, but I’m certain the GOP won’t let Obama take any credit for success in using a non-military approach, and will attack him regardless of how he proceeds. Caution is the word. Hopefully Obama won’t be swayed and manipulated the way George W. Bush unwisely was in the post 9/11 fear and fervor which led America into a decade of war, unprecedented costs and lives lost.


Economic Partner or America’s Bill Collector?

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, China held a total of $1.13 trillion of U.S. Treasury debt as of October 2011, accounting for 24% of total foreign holdings of U.S. debt, and making China the largest foreign holder of U.S. bonds.
America’s continued reliance on foreign oil, the social and political unrest in the Middle East and the downgrade of the nation’s credit rating by Standard & Poor’s, has become a weapon in the hands of Obama opponents. The truth is that misguided decisions by both parties and major corporations over the past 50 years has led to this precarious circumstance, but with the decline of the American middle-class, and a strengthened China on course to replace the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, means that President Obama’s second term will need to be devoted to developing an effective strategy for competing with China and other emerging markets like Brazil, India and Russia.

Obama’s decision to place American troops in South East Asia this year was a clear sign the White House is preparing for the full consequences of a Chinese economic and military powerhouse. But military strength isn’t enough to keep America competitive. Perhaps the threat of losing its place as the world’s most powerful economic force will provide the president leverage in policy debates with the GOP, and create an incentive for Republicans to put their country ahead of partisan politics. China still lags behind America and most European nations when it comes to infrastructure, worker compensation, protections and human rights. Obama will need to use these issues as tools to express American exceptionalism, while promoting our values and an agenda to make us competitive in the new global environment.


Where Do We Go From Here?
The president’s greatest challenge will be articulating a plan for what he’ll actually do if given a second-term. The probability of a divided Congress looms over any progressive plans he may have. It’s difficult to make future promises of hope and change, if in January of 2013 he is still staring down the face of Boehner, McConnell and a do-nothing Congress.

The economy will remain the most important issue for every American, and global challenges will offer Obama a chance to lead and shape the nation’s future. Developing a practical plan, which is also politically expedient, will be a reflection of the president’s resilience and a mark of his well-deserved legacy. Especially in the face of such fervent opposition. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing, without a demand. It never did. And it never will.”

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.