Obama announces his re-election bid

President Obama promises to run an innovative campaign, but it could cost $1bn.

And – he's off. Barack Obama has officially announced his re-election bid, after one of Washington's worst-guarded secrets. In typical tech-savvy style, it was first revealed in emails and text messages to grass-roots supporters, with a short video on barackobama.com – before the neccessary papers were filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Everything was already in place – the 2012 website complete with all-important donation button, the campaign HQ in Chicago . . . and running the whole show is the former White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, unusually ensconced in that high-rise Chicago office some 700 miles from Washington, DC.

David Plouffe, who ran Obama's victorious campaign three years ago, told the New York Times that Messina's team was "going to innovate – and make what we did in 2008 seem somewhat prehistoric". Hard to see what they could do to transform the campaign paradigm this time around, but let's wait and see.

One thing, of course, hasn't changed – cold, hard cash: Messina has already been wooing potential donors and Obama has got a series of fundraisers in the diary, all aimed at attracting up to a billion dollars (yes, you read it right) even though he's extremely unlikely to face any challengers at the primary stage. If he meets that target (and a $30,000-a-head dinner at Harlem's Red Rooster restaurant plus a New York reception the other week managed to pull in a cool $1.5m), he'll become the first billion-dollar presidential candidate, at the helm of the most expensive campaign ever.

In contrast to 2008, the bulk of the money will be raised not from the grass roots, but from wealthy backers with deep pockets. Messina has already asked them to bring in at least $350,000 each this year – not exactly small change. But all neccessary to combat the Republicans' formidable money machine – its own party coffers boosted by groups like American Crossroads, which hauled in millions for the midterms in 2010.

So let's assume he gets the money: what are the odds for 2012? It's usually hard to beat an incumbent, and even though Obama's ratings are hardly stellar, there aren't exactly any standout stars in the Republican field. Indeed, none of the various runners and riders has yet declared officially.

Reasons to be cheerful?

After months of uncertainty, however, the planned 4 April launch date is feeling like pretty good timing for the White House – the Democrats have been cheered by the latest jobless figures, down to 8.8 per cent, with almost a million and a half jobs created this year.

It all offers some hope that the economy could start rebounding just in time for next November's poll. Battles over spending cuts and union rights in key states such as Wisconsin have also rallied the Democratic base.

Yet there are considerable hurdles to leap – not least the fight over this year's federal budget and the threat of a government shutdown, still very much alive. Despite the administration's best efforts, the flagship health-care reforms are no more popular now than they were a year ago, while the stimulus bill has not yet proved its electoral worth.

Most urgently, Obama is grappling with a series of crises overseas, the military intervention in Libya holding out the prospect of a long-drawn-out commitment by US forces.

So the next 18 months are all about "winning the future" – the Obama slogan that's meant to transcend talk of hope and change. Once again, the key is energising his core supporters – including those young people who were the heart and soul of the triumph in 2008 – and reaching out to those independents who are wavering over the choice ahead.

The presidential battle is joined. Now it's up to the Republican hopefuls to put their head above ground and enter the race for real.

Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.