The Week of November 14th, 2011

Supreme Court to hear healthcare case, Rahm's budget, FARC leader killed, new Italian prime minister, U.S. troops to Australia, And the Gingrich bounce. 

5. Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Challenge to Healthcare Law
On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case contesting President Obama’s healthcare legislation. The case was filed by twenty-six states together and, in August, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled 2-1 against the bill, holding the requirement that all people buy health insurance as unconstitutional. Over 25 separate challenges to the law have been filed and have had mixed results in the courts, with three out of four federal appelate courts finding the law to be constitutional.

Republican opponents of the bill have largely targeted this provision requiring the purchase of insurance in attempts to strike down the legislation as a whole. It is unclear, however, whether the Supreme Court will rule on just this one provision or the entire bill. If the law is overturned, it will deal a blow to President Obama’s biggest domestic accomplishment. In addition, the decision will come in June 2012 amidst presidential campaign season. Regardless of which way the Justices decide, any ruling on the law will have an impact on the 2012 election. In the event that this particular phrase is upheld by the justices, it will signal an end to the current legal challenge. This will force opponents of the bill to find a new legal or legislative challenge to the law. If the court strikes down the phrase, Obama will be forced to campaign on a law which lacks its primary operative clause. Because of the timing of the decision, even as the Supreme Court attempts to put the debate over the healthcare bill to rest, controversy over the legislation will continue to impact politics until at least the November 2012 elections.

4. Chicago Budget Passes Unanimously
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first budget won unanimous approval from the 50-member city council Wednesday. Though the conclusion was never in doubt, the size of the opposition seemed to fluctuate in the final weeks of negotiations. In the end, the all-Democratic council endorsed the ambitious budget. While Emanuel has built a reputation as a hard-nosed politician, many council members—including those who publicly opposed the mayor in the past—noted that his communications had been very open and that he was keen on taking suggestions throughout the entire budgeting process. Many noted that his plan was serious about long-term fixes, qualities that many budgets written by Mayor Daley lacked.

It is precisely these fixes that make Emanuel’s budget so interesting and somewhat surprising. This budget, proposed by a Democratic mayor and sanctioned by an entirely Democratic council, has a swath of proposals that seem antithetical to mainstream Democratic ideals. The budget cuts funding for libraries, eliminates a number of police stations, increases utility bills for certain residents, and cuts over 500 government jobs. In fact, the most vocal opposition was from the AFSCME Union, which represents public government employees, and usually supports Democratic politicians. It remains to be seen whether this Democratic city government will continue to promote policies traditionally opposed by Democrats and what, if any, backlash will be from core Democratic groups.

3. Colombian Rebel Leader Killed
On November 4, a Colombian army raid killed Alfonso Cano, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC. Cano had been an important member of the FARC since the 1970s, ideological leader since 1990, and head of the FARC’s military wing, the “People’s Army,” since 2008. After Cano’s death, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called on the FARC to surrender, but the group has already selected hardliner Timoleon Jimenez as leader and he shows no sign of giving in.

For the past decade, America has funneled money and assistance to the Colombian Army in order to eradicate the FARC and the cocaine trade that sustains them. The aid seems to be having an effect, since 2002 the FARC have seen five commanders killed, one captured, and their army has been cut in half to a mere 9,000 men. The Colombian government isn’t threatened by the FARC as a major insurgency anymore however the group remains relatively active, conducting intermittent small bombings and kidnappings. How Cano’s death with affect this balance is uncertain - it may inject new life into the organization or force it into a tighter downward spiral. What is certain however is that as long as the war on terror remains a priority in Washington, American aid will continue to flow.

2. Italy Appoints Technocrats to Cabinet
This past week Mario Monti was selected as Italy’s next Prime Minister. Mr. Monti, an economist and newly-appointed “Senator for Life,” officially assumed leadership over the embattled nation on Wednesday. After surviving over 50 confidence votes since taking power for the third nonconsecutive time in 2008, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stepped down last week amid growing economic crisis in Italy and the rest of the European Union. Monti has selected an emergency cabinet of economists, academics, and technocrats from the private sector. In response to criticisms that he did not appoint a single elected official, Monti blithely remarked that "the non-presence of political personalities will make it easier" to act on the issues at hand.

With massive debts that imperil the existence of the euro, what Italy does next will have far-reaching effects on economies worldwide. While stacking his cabinet with unelected officials may be seen as undemocratic, it is not without some basis, particularly with the amount of reform needed. These will include changes to the nation’s banking system, transportation network, and infrastructure, as well as austerity measures. While the business expertise of this cabinet will be helpful, the lack of established political figures within the group could hurt efforts to convince Italians to adopt austerity measures and other changes. Technocrats will be more likely to design a comprehensive solution, however they may lack the influence and political charisma to obtain public support for much needed change.

1. Marines to be Stationed in Australia
While visiting the Australian capitol of Canberra, President Obama announced that 2,500 Marines will be deployed at bases throughout Australia in a move intended to strengthen America’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Key American officials toured the region before the ASEAN Summit this coming weekend, and Secretary Clinton visited the Philippines, where she discussed security concerns of territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The United States currently maintains troops in Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Singapore.

The move is largely aimed at countering China, which has shown increasing aggressiveness in dealing with territorial disputes. In September 2010, China declared an embargo on rare earth mineral exports from Japan after clashes over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The situation in the South China Sea, where China, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have several disputed claims over uninhabited islets, has the potential to lead to further volatility in the region. Officials’ visits to the area signify a larger emphasis towards the region following the reduction of America’s military presence in the Middle East. Earlier this month, Secretary Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy that “One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment -- diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise -- in the Asia-Pacific region.”

0. Newt Gingrich Sees Surge In Polls
Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has bounced back into contention for the party's nomination this week. A McClatchy-Marist poll released last Tuesday has Gingrich as potentially the most successful Republican candidate against President Barack Obama, with Obama leading 47 percent to Gingrich’s 45. A Fox News poll rates Gingrich as the highest ranking among all Republican candidates nationwide at 23 percent, barely topping Mitt Romney’s 22 percent and significantly ahead of Herman Cain’s 15. Most optimistic for Gingrich’s campaign advisers is that Iowa-- the location of the first GOP primary-- is currently in a four-way dead heat according to the latest Bloomberg poll, with Cain garnering 20 percent of the vote, Ron Paul 19 percent, Romney 18, and Gingrich in a competitive 17.

While these recent poll numbers may be encouraging to the former House Speaker’s supporters, the existence of this “resurgence” needs to be looked at in its proper context. For most of the primary season, the media and GOP electorate have been playing musical chairs when it comes to selecting the “un-Romney” candidate. At the beginning it was Michelle Bachmann, who was a major contender until Rick Perry’s campaign announcement stole her thunder. Herman Cain’s perceived status as a political outsider and his 9-9-9 Plan soon propelled him to the front of the polls, and the sudden arrival of numerous sex abuse claims against the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO has allowed Gingrich to carve a way forward for himself. The Republican Party electorate is currently very fickle when it comes to choosing Obama’s opponent, and if the Iowa poll numbers reveal anything, it is that this political fight is now truly getting started.