David McCann: US divide is new political battleground

The seismic shift in US politics that inaugurated an African-American president for the first time in 2009 barely registered on the Richter scale for many states four years hence.

With the exception of Washinton DC and perhaps Obama’s heartland of Chicago, Illinois, it was business as usual for most of the US - including California where the president’s official return to power did not attract much fanfare.

Perhaps it was the difference in timezones – the Pacific coast being three hours behind the capital - with the address broadcast at around 8.30am. But there were no official parties and the bars remained closed. As noted by the Los Angeles Times, an anniversary is rarely as much fun as a wedding.

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On the streets of San Diego there was no pomp or pagentry for the return of an incumbent President, save for the some residual bunting to commemorate civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior, whose birthday was celebrated with mass parades the day before.

Obama’s second term is set against a landscape of political division. He faces a Republican majority in Congress that has often succeeded in frustrating liberal policy.

Unlike his predecessors, Obama is noted for his aversion to the game of schmoozing adversaries, or indeed allies, on Capitol Hill, and according to most social commentators the political dynamic between Republicans and Democrats remains “pretty awful”.

But his Republican opponents are today in a state of disarray. A huge chasm exists between the right-leaning policies that play well in the Republican primaries – the first hurdle to becoming a Presidential candidate – and those that will chime with modern day America. Abortion and gay marriage remain contentious issues for the right, flying in the face of contemporary American opinion.

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At the ballot the Republicans have a major dilemma and must soften their stance on some key issues to keep pace with the increasingly progressive American voter and become electable. Immigration might be the starting point. With a burgeoning Latin population, there is a growing sense in conservative America that this is a nettle they have to grasp.

Florida sentator Marco Rubio, seen as a potential Republican frontrunner for the next presidential election, has already proposed sweeping immigration reforms not dissimilar to those already outlined by Mr Obama.

His solution would give undocumented immigrants legal status and an eventual path to citizenship provided they meet a series of criteria.

Here there may be consensus, but intra-party relations in Washington DC over the last four years has been characterised by ill-feeling and outright contempt.

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In what has been called a legacy speech Obama cited climate change, gay marriage and healthcare reform in his impassioned second inaugural address, but he also called for a more inclusive style of politics.

“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” he said.

He will have to bridge deeply set fault lines with his opponents if his legacy policies are to gain any traction.

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