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  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 12:58pm
Column
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2012, 9:36am

Four more years for Obama to make his mark

China and Asia are sure to figure prominently in Barack Obama's second term, but he also faces the huge challenge of a looming 'fiscal cliff' in an America that has become deeply polarised

BIO

Chief Asia correspondent Greg Torode is one of the most experienced reporters in the region. In his 20 years at the SCMP, Torode has spent 15 years as a correspondent, travelling extensively to report political, strategic and security developments. The way the region is adapting to China’s rise has formed a key part of his work. His exclusive stories and analyses are widely followed by regional and international media.
 

Once the party ends after US President Barack Obama's historic - and bitterly fought - re-election, he faces a sobering stack of issues demanding urgent attention.

And among the folders in his in-tray will be ones marked "China" and "Asia".

Amid all the rancour of his long campaign against Republican rival Mitt Romney, one of the few areas of loose bipartisan agreement was Washington's approach to the region.

Their debates saw a sharpening of the sense that Washington must stand up to Beijing on the trade and economic fronts and enhance relationships with other East Asian nations while seeking to deepen engagement with China. Both camps also showed concern about uncertainties in China's future direction.

While there were differences in detail - Romney's threat to instantly brand China a "currency manipulator" being one - the general thrust was very similar.

Li Daokui, a China specialist at Tsinghua University's school of economics, said the re-election of Obama was a worrying sign for Sino-US ties.

"Traditionally, US presidents serving a second term normally do not make significant achievement in domestic affairs, and therefore Obama will focus on international affairs. It is worrying that China will become the target of Obama. We should be mentally prepared for that," he wrote in his microblog.

For all Beijing's concerns about US containment, Obama adviser and former national security staff Dr Jeff Bader said the key to Washington's regional approach was "a strong relationship with China and a strong relationship with our friends and allies". "You can't have one without the other," he said.

Those issues will swing into sharp focus within days as Obama attends the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, where he is expected to seek to reassure the Chinese delegation about negotiations back home over the looming "fiscal cliff" - a key test of his new pledge for bipartisanship. Without a deal between Congress and the president on spending, a combination of tax rises and automatic spending cuts would kick in, and could tip the US economy back into recession, analysts say.

"The biggest challenge facing the president going forward is the issue of the fiscal cliff and the broader fiscal health of the United States of America," said analyst James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations. "If the … president cannot succeed in finding a way to put the United States on a glide path to fiscal solvency, the long-term consequences for America and its foreign policy will be immense and dire."

Myanmar appears to be another issue high on the president's agenda after an official in the former pariah state said Obama would meet President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi during his swing through the region.

The new Obama administration also faces personnel issues that are being closely watched in the region.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will leave, and veteran senator John Kerry is working hard to be named her successor, congressional sources say.

Asian diplomats are watching for who becomes defence secretary - an increasingly important post from a regional perspective as Obama's "pivot" back to Asia moves into full gear.

While incumbent Leon Panetta has not publicly signalled any intention to leave, there is widespread speculation that he is keen to retire to California.

Panetta, 74, has served as a congressman, as White House chief of staff in the Clinton era and as head of the Central Intelligence Agency. He replaced Robert Gates at the Pentagon in 2011 but already spends most weekends on the west coast.

One contender, say administration insiders, is the recent former undersecretary of defence for policy, Michele Flournoy, who was first appointed to the Pentagon during the Clinton era.

Flournoy, an Oxford graduate, played a key role in drawing up Obama's military pivot back to Asia and away from Europe and the Middle East. If successful, she would be the first woman secretary of defence - the key position of civilian oversight over the military - in US history.

The shape of Obama's second term could look considerably different to the first.

He has just won his last campaign and is now widely expected to work to secure his legacy.

It will be an effort framed, and perhaps limited, by a series of formidable challenges - millions of Americans still out of work, a deficit now topping a record US$16 billion as well as the need to heal a deeply polarised country.

While Obama won both the popular vote and the electoral college, his majority was down on that four years ago - possibly a reflection of the fact that nearly 8 per cent of the US workforce is unemployed.

No US president has won re-election with unemployment running so high - another sign that Obama's campaign has rewritten the rules of US elections.

Both Democrats and Republicans will be watching closely to see whether he has learned any lessons about how to deal with a decidedly prickly US House of Representatives that remains firmly in Republican control.

"Unlike other presidents, Obama has never made that great jump in getting Congress on side, by hook or by crook," said one Republican lobbyist.

"It is not just Republicans, but Democrats up there, as well. He's aloof to the point of being cold. And frankly, it is all about legacy for him now, so he is going to need all the friends he can get.

"How he deals with Congress will be one of the key aspects of a new Obama term."

The tragedy of Hurricane Sandy could yet provide a bipartisan bridge across the deep divisions imperiling American politics.

Exit polls suggested that voters reacted warmly to Obama's efforts to work closely with the combative Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie.

A prominent backer of Romney, Christie repeatedly praised Obama's effort in orchestrating a federal recovery effort for his stricken state and the pair are said to have forged a new political friendship that Obama is keen to deepen.

His ability to fulfil his potential as the most dynamic and creative US politician of his generation may yet depend on it.

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