Buoyed by a resounding re-election victory, President Barack Obama has outlined an ambitious second term agenda. In his final four years in office, the president hopes to pursue action on climate change, immigration reform, and gun control.
These objectives, taken with healthcare, are the holy grail of American political liberalism. Achieving them in a first term would be no easy feat, let alone in a second term, where presidents traditionally face waning political influence.
Just as the crashing economy took over as a priority in Obama’s first term, the White House may struggle to control the agenda in the second. But there are many reasons to think they may just have a little more luck this time round.
One reason is the changed political landscape and a weakened Republican Party, and the other may be the way in which the President’s re-election organisation is being reformed to create a permanent issues campaign which looks to outlast Obama’s eight years in office.
The first 100 days of Obama’s second term will likely be dominated by familiar skirmishes over debt reduction as Congress flirts with national default and a second fiscal cliff. Previous negotiations demonstrated a stunning inability to thrash out any form of agreement. This time, however, the White House has reason to be more confident.
In 2011, a primary sticking point in negotiations was a refusal by congressional Republicans to consider any rise in taxes. But at 2am on New Year’s Day, Republicans handed Obama an early victory, voting for a plan that would raise taxes on those earning over $400,000 to avoid an even steeper tax rise from a legislative trigger they themselves had pushed for.
The fiscal cliff itself, a massive indiscriminate budget cut that is best avoided by compromise, was the product of debt ceiling negotiations in 2011. At that time Republicans refused to raise the borrowing limit, risking national default and a global recession, unless Democrats agreed to deep spending cuts. A furious President likened it to holding the economy hostage and the failed negotiations resulted in the country having its credit rating downgraded.
Obama now publicly refuses to enter into any negotiations over the debt ceiling, and after admonishing him for being uncompromising, Republicans now appear to begrudgingly agree. Polls show that if the nation were to default, Republicans would get the greater share of the blame. Perhaps that’s why in the next few weeks Republicans are planning on a temporary “clean” debt ceiling increase, in order to save themselves for negotiations over the postponed round of automatic cuts due to hit at the end of February.
The White House doesn’t have time to waste while these debates run their course. The inaugural address and upcoming state of the union are major platforms for advancing presidential policy. Out of necessity, the administration is hitting the ground running.
“Combined with his signature healthcare legislation, any combination of these reforms would ensure Obama has a strong and defensible liberal legacy.”
Obama aims to campaign on issues to build public support, in the hope that he can transform that into legislative action. Part of this effort was the announcement that Obama’s campaign organisation, which has been working astonishingly effectively since the democratic primaries in 2007, will now transform and continue to campaign in support of the President’s second term agenda.
At the President’s direction, Vice President Joe Biden’s working group on gun violence has already reported back policy recommendations in response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary which killed 26 people, 20 of them children.
They’re playing the politics hard. Biden evoked the imagery of young children with bodies “riddled with bullets”, and the President surrounded himself with children to announce the plan. Numerous emails focusing on gun violence have been blasted out to millions of Democrats, and both the President and Vice President plan to tour the country to promote their plan.
The plan includes strengthening background checks, closing loopholes which allow gun buyers to avoid such checks, and placing limits on high capacity magazines. While the group also advocates reinstating the assault weapons ban which expired under George W. Bush, it recognised banning high capacity magazines was a far more important goal.
Since 1984, the US has endured 22 mass shootings; all involving high capacity magazines. Many have grimly accepted the wisdom that it’s when a killer pauses to reload that a bystander or police officer can attempt to subdue them.
The White House’s game plan for tackling immigration reform and climate change are less apparent. The “DREAM Act”, which was intended to provide a “path to citizenship” for young undocumented immigrants, failed to pass Congress in Obama’s first term. However, bruised Republicans hoping to broaden their demographic appeal may now be more receptive to reform, especially if it can be argued to have economic benefits. There is also a concerted push from the Republican elite to soften the party’s tough stance on immigration.
Efforts to address climate change in Obama’s first term were limited to promoting gas over coal, and mandating higher fuel efficiency standards. While the White House has signalled that climate change will be a second-term priority, activists’ expectations remain low. At the moment, even a mention in the state of the union address would be considered progress.
While pricing carbon in the US is unlikely, activists might reasonably expect an increased focus on efficiency, further encouragement of renewables, and perhaps even agreements with India and China aimed at modestly curbing their emissions.
The President’s second-term agenda is definitely ambitious. But although it may require a level of skill in Republican whispering the administration has thus far failed to demonstrate, achieving moderate reforms on immigration, the environment and guns are by no means impossible.
Combined with his signature healthcare legislation, any combination of these reforms would ensure Obama has a strong and defensible liberal legacy. If that’s the case, Obama will be remembered for much more than being the first American to break the white male presidential mould.
*Ben Winsor is an Australian law and international studies graduate working with a New York political consulting firm that assisted a Democratic congressional campaign in New Jersey. In his spare time he volunteered for the Obama/Biden campaign