President Barack Obama faces manifold threats and challenges, foreign and domestic, as he begins his second term in office.
The terrorist attack on a natural gas facility in Algeria last week that left dozens of people dead underscores the continuing danger posed to American citizens and American interests by affiliates of the al Qaeda terrorist network.
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Although Obama authorized the daring May 2011 raid on the terrorist compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that resulted in the killing of al Qaeda's leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs, al Qaeda "franchises" such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al-Shariah, and others remain undefeated and retain the ability to inflict deadly harm against Americans—as happened in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead including the U.S. ambassador.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, meanwhile, has established a zone of control in the northern region of the West African nation of Mali, the central government of which is battling alongside French forces to deny the terrorists safe haven.
The global battle against Islamic radicals has not waned despite the president's reluctance to use the phrase "war on terrorism." Around 68,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan more than a decade after the U.S. invasion there to depose the Taliban government which sheltered al Qaeda central. Obama has pledged to withdraw the troops by 2014 even as the Kabul-based government of Hamid Karzai struggles to maintain control of restive provinces in the east and south. Nuclear-armed Pakistan, the home of the Taliban movement and Osama bin Laden's longtime residence, is also in the midst of considerable upheaval.
The Shiite Islamic theocracy in Iran continues to march toward nuclear status. Iran's neighbor, Iraq, which U.S. troops vacated at the end of 2011 because of the Obama administration's inability to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement, is experiencing a flare-up of ethno-sectarian violence that could destabilize the government of Nuri al-Maliki. Iraq's western neighbor, Syria, is about to enter its third year of a civil war that has left an estimated 60,000 people dead. Last week brought credible reports that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad may have deployed chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. The power vacuum in the north of Syria has created a refugee crisis and provided al Qaeda sympathizers a new home.
As it withdraws troops from the Middle East and slashes defense spending, the Obama administration has "pivoted" or shifted focus to East Asia where China, under new leadership, is in the midst of one of the largest military build-ups in history and is engaged in territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, not to mention Taiwan. U.S. relations with China are tense, as are U.S. relations with China's northern neighbor, Russia, whose authoritarian ruler Vladimir Putin recently imposed a ban on Russian-American adoptions after the U.S. Congress passed a law authorizing sanctions against Russian oligarchs implicated in human rights abuses. Obama had made improving relations with Russia one of the centerpieces of his first term.
The advanced economies in the United States, Japan, and the European Union continue to experience low growth. The U.S. unemployment rate, at 7.8 percent, is the same as when Obama took office in 2009. Growth remains below what is necessary to substantially reduce unemployment. The federal government is expected to run a deficit of more than a trillion dollars for the fourth year in a row. Long-term financing problems for America's health and pension entitlements remain unaddressed. The implementation of Obama's signature domestic initiative, the Affordable Care Act of 2010, is uncertain as the federal government continues to encounter delays in building so-called insurance "exchanges" and some experts doubt that the individual mandate, scheduled to take effect in 2014, will achieve its desired outcomes.
However, despite all this, President Obama is expected to pursue gun control legislation, a "comprehensive" immigration reform that includes an amnesty for illegal migrants currently in the United States, and further tax increases on the wealthy as he begins his second term.
In brighter news, as of today the Obama presidency is more than half finished.