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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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.