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Barack Obama and the New Republican Challenge

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Steadily declining popularity, and disillusionment culminating in the loss of control of the House, marked the President’s first two years in office. A somewhat humbled Barack Obama seemed determined to try a more bipartisan approach. Will this tactic, in the new session, help in getting his policies through Congress, or is he facing a Republican mindset of pure obstructionism?

After an aggressive two years on the legislative front, President Obama starts today to play defense.  While Republicans now control the House, the President maintains control of the Senate, and of course still has his veto available, but though it is still possible to get his bills passed, the GOP now have more opportunity to delay or even block his initiatives.

The Republicans have vowed to challenge Barack Obama, both with legislation and with their power to investigate. They can effectively tie up government through an endless series of subpoenas, forcing appearances at inquiries. They are also no strangers to the filibuster, although the President has put forward measures to limit this tactic. How serious are they about flexing their new-found muscles?

“The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin carrying out their instructions,” said newly elected House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. These are hardly words of compromise and bipartisan cooperation. The main GOP targets are government spending, healthcare, and what they see as over-regulation and interference in private enterprise.

Spending is one area where they could be most effective. As all spending bills must originate in the House, the Republicans now gain significant control over the federal budget. They have already announced that they will challenge the government’s attempt to raise the debt limit, and will require federal spending cuts to win their approval.

They have already set their sights on the health care bill passed during the previous session. While there is little chance of repealing it, they are looking to defund the Obamacare bill, and thereby starve it to death. This tactic may prove effective, but in the long run it could alienate voters, who although not completely on board with this bill, aren’t ready to see the GOP cripple the President’s initiatives simply for the sake of partisan politics.

How far are they really willing to go in obstructing the business of the nation? This could be decided by the Tea Party, which is responsible for the election of many of the new Republicans in Congress. With 2012 not that far distant, those helped into office by this new political force won’t be anxious to lose their backing. Although not a true political party running its own candidates, the Tea Party can influence Congress through pressure on the Republicans they put there.

When it comes to disapproval of Barack Obama’s Democrats, the Tea Party is certainly the most radical. They want to see pretty much all of the President’s initiatives of the last two years overturned. In actual numbers, it isn’t a huge organization, but they are probably the most vocal minority in the country today.

Its members are mainly white Christians, with more wealth and education than the general population. Polls show that 73% disagree with the President’s approaches to Muslim countries, 88% agree with Arizona”s immigration law, and 82% don’t feel that gays and lesbians should have a legal right to marry (52% feel that they have too much political power). They are conservative, and believe in strict adherence to the constitution. Given this membership base it isn’t difficult to see why they so strongly oppose the Obama Democrats.

How much influence will the Tea Party have over Congress? It depends to a large extent on how far the Republicans, whom they backed, will be willing to follow their dictates. Even those who most owe their success in 2010 to the Tea Party recognize that the group may not represent mainstream thinking. Trying to overturn everything that the Democrats have done since 2008, while opposing every bill they try to introduce in the next two years, could turn off voters, who could see this as nothing more than pointlessly bringing government to a standstill.

The mood of Congress, in this session, isn’t one of bipartisan cooperation. If Barack Obama hopes to get anywhere in the next two years, he is going to have to play some serious hardball. The Republicans have this time to convince voters that they are America’s future.

The one thing that the nation doesn’t need is to have Tea Party-backed Republicans crippling the process of government, for no better reason than to prove that they can do it.

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About Ian Stevenson