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Four to Watch in 2015 US Politics

President Obama, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

2014 was a year of political upheaval in U.S. politics. President Barack Obama’s poll ratings took a nosedive and Republicans scored some major gains in the midterm elections, altering the balance of power in Washington for the next two years. So what is ahead for 2015-more political gridlock? Is it possible there might be some breakthroughs on bipartisan cooperation? Or are we looking at a combination of both?

Here’s a look at some of the key political players for 2015 and what might motivate them in the year ahead:

President Barack Obama

For a president who had such a tough year politically, Obama was pretty confident and upbeat in his yearend news conference. “In terms of my own job, I’m energized, I’m excited about the prospects for the next couple of years, and I’m certainly not going to be stopping for a minute in the effort to make life better for ordinary Americans.”

This is a president who, despite his party losing control of the Senate to Republicans, seems in some ways politically liberated to pursue policy goals without worrying how they will impact his next election.

Obama’s unilateral actions on immigration and Cuba have sparked opposition in Congress. But they also put Republicans on the spot and exposed some cracks in party unity, especially on Cuba, with the likes of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Arizona Senator Jeff Flake agreeing with the president that it is time for a different approach to the Castro government.

Obama has signaled the likelihood of more unilateral action ahead in 2015, even as he tries to forge agreements with Republicans on issues such as tax reform, trade and maybe even immigration reform.

The president appears increasingly mindful of his legacy in the final two years of his tenure. He wants to be known as a transformational president, not just a symbol of change as the country’s first African-American president.

But a lot of Democrats increasingly are looking at the 2016 election and the need to keep the White House. They may not be happy with moves that might damage the chances that another Democrat will succeed him in the Oval Office. After all that has only happened twice since World War II when Democrat Harry Truman won in 1948 after four elections won by Franklin Roosevelt and in 1988 when President George H.W. Bush was elected after two terms of President Ronald Reagan.

Senator Mitch McConnell

The incoming Senate Majority Leader will have to find ways of getting things passed despite a chorus of Tea Party senators humming a different tune in the background. McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner seem determined to restore what insiders like to call “regular order” to congressional proceedings and actually get things done. Why? Because it’s hugely important for the Republican Party brand to show voters that the party is capable of governing when given the reins of power.

You can expert more infighting in 2015, especially among several Republican senators who may run for president and that could become a huge distraction for a party hoping to win back voter trust just in time for the 2016 presidential election. We are already seeing signs of dissent from the likes of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Florida Senator Marco Rubio as they position themselves for a possible White House run a little more than a year from now.

McConnell told The New York Times he is ready for the challenge. “There are two kinds of people in politics, those who want to make a point and those who want to make a difference. All of us from time to time make a point. But it is time now to make a difference.”

McConnell is likely to focus on issues related to the economy in the early stages of Republican control of both the Senate and House of Representatives and steer away from divisive debates over immigration. Unlike after 2010 when the Tea Party was ascendant following Republican gains in the midterm election, this time there is more a sense of party leaders trying to build consensus among their own and proceeding cautiously under their new majority status.

Hillary Clinton

No doubt about it, this is her time. Some Democrats may be getting restless while Clinton makes up her mind about another presidential run, but all the pieces seem to be there. She appears to have huge support within the party and an apparent lack of strong potential challengers who might face her in the primaries. The polls continue to show Clinton is the clear favorite for the Democratic nomination and she beats most of the possible Republican candidates fairly easily.

And yet there is a sense of unease among some Democrats. What is Clinton’s rationale for running? What will her core message be? How will she rally Democrats disappointed and in some cases dispirited at the end of President Obama’s two terms?

Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is surely a reminder to many of the glory days of the Democratic Party back in the ‘90’s. But Hillary Clinton must present herself as a viable presidential candidate on her own terms.

She must also contend with the unpopularity of President Obama among moderate voters, which could be a factor in the general election. At the same time, during the primaries, she must find a way to appeal to core Democratic progressives and liberals, some of the same folks who abandoned her for candidate Obama in 2008.

Let’s just say for now that while Clinton looks like a strong favorite for the Democratic nomination, her own appeal and ability to campaign looks like a work in progress. 2015 should tell us a lot about the chances of another Clinton presidency, assuming she decides to run.

Jeb Bush

It’s only an exploratory presidential run for now, but Jeb Bush’s decision to take a step toward a White House bid in 2016 could really shake up the battle for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

For one thing it may speed up everybody’s timetable to decide whether to run. An early Bush bid would lock up fundraisers that might otherwise be drawn to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or maybe even to 2012 nominee Mitt Romney should he decide on a third try for the White House.

Bush represents a dream candidate for many within the Republican Party establishment—two term former governor, moderate to conservative record with a proven ability to draw support from political centrists and Hispanic voters.

But is the Republican Party of 2015 the same as when Bush last run for office back in 2002? Bush represents the kind of candidate the Tea Party often loves to go after—too moderate for many hard-core conservatives and seen as too willing to compromise with Democrats. But then the Tea Party may not have as much influence within the Republican Party as it did when it first burst on the scene in 2009.

Republicans won several Senate seats this year by nominating more mainstream candidates who survived primary challenges from Tea Party supporters, a victory for the establishment wing of the party that wants to limit the movement’s influence among Republican voters.

Jeb Bush may also have to overcome another potential liability—his name. Voters were definitely thumbs down on another Bush presidency in the years immediately following the tenure of his brother, former President George W. Bush.

The question now is has enough time elapsed so that voters are willing to give another Bush a chance to run the country beginning in 2017?

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.