Obama vs. Congress: the re-election campaign begins

With his speech on the jobs bill, Obama has set himself up against the "do-nothing" Congress.

It looks like Barack Obama has launched his re-election campaign. In a speech to Congress, he unveiled the American Jobs Act, and in effect dared Republicans not to pass it.

The bill reaches out to Republicans on many points. Much of it consists of tax cuts, with a $240bn expansion of the cut in payroll taxes promised, as well as a tax holiday for smaller businesses hiring new employees. He also said that Medicare spending needed to be cut. The bill also retains some spending commitments, such as $140bn for modernising schools and repairing roads and bridges.

In his speech, Obama eschewed the soaring rhetoric for which he is famed, instead urging Congress to "pass this jobs plan right away". Initial responses from Republican leaders imply that they are receptive, although it is unlikely they will pass it in its entirety.

With the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, currently floundering in the 40s, Obama faces the dual challenge of shaking off the public perception that he has failed to deliver on the economy, and the intransigence of the Republican-controlled House.

Tactically, this speech adopted a clever position. Obama's own approval ratings may be dipping, but an incredible 82 per cent of the US public think that Congress is doing a bad job. This suggests that the cynical politicking seen during the debt ceiling crisis did not go unnoticed.

Over at the Huffington Post, Howard Fineman suggests that the speech will set the tone for Obama's re-election campaign:

By putting forward a simply-named, to-the-point bill -- the American Jobs Act -- and by challenging Congress to pass it and pass it now, Obama hopes to create a win-win: either the Congress accedes or, as President Truman did in 1948, he can run against the "do nothing" Congress.

This strategy has the potential to be effective, given public frustration with politics in general. With some comments bordering on sarcasm, he presented the debate as a conflict between the majority of voters, and those who believe that "the only thing we can do restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everyone's money, let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they're on their own."

But the relentlessly confrontational stance that Republicans have so far adopted is not Obama's only problem: there is also the jobs question itself. Analysts predict that the plan, if passed, will encourage growth, but unemployment remains stuck at 9.1 per cent and it is unlikely that this bill -- however well-intentioned -- will substantially change that. However, after weeks of what many viewed as a frustrating lack of action, it is good to see Obama get off the back foot and go in fighting.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle