In the president’s first term, a gauntlet of procedural hurdles stood in the way of progressive change. As Majority Leader Harry Reid promises to reform the filibuster—on the magical day when the new Senate convenes and can make new rules—most progressives are wondering whether it’s an end to many of President Barack Obama’s problems. After all, without the constant threat of a filibuster, Senate Democrats wouldn’t have had to scramble for votes from the centrists who watered down health-care legislation and stalled action on climate change in Obama’s first two years, when he had an outright majority in the Senate.
But the filibuster was only the most obvious procedural challenge to a more progressive Obama first term. There are other things the president did in his first four years that caused important legislation to sputter and fail and that led to a less-than-progressive agenda. Here are some of the other problems Obama helped cause in his first term, and how he could fix them.
A Permanent Campaign
Obama built a behemoth grassroots organization in 2008, an infrastructure that delivered a decisive victory. He was the first presidential candidate whose campaign understood the Internet and harnessed online organizing to the fullest extent. But once he was elected, Obama retreated to legislative deal-making out of the public eye. He allowed the public enthusiasm for politics he inspired to go fallow. Organizing for America—the name of his leftover campaign operation—was folded into the Democratic National Committee and largely disappeared. As the Affordable Care Act crept through Congress, it was the reactionary Tea Partiers—not the progressives who elected Obama—who were at town halls agitating over the bill and capturing the media spotlight.
Luckily for the president, that energy didn't fully dissipate after 2008. Organizing for America reverted to Obama for America, and his loyal volunteers returned in 2012, allowing the president to coast to re-election. Now, Obama appears to have learned from the mistakes of his first term. The president has already hit the road to sell his vision on the fiscal cliff and his staff is still firing off e-mail blasts. His administration has vowed to maintain its public outreach, both for the fiscal cliff and other future policy pushes, in the hope that the public will put pressure on Congress to pass the agenda that Obama campaigned on. But public pressure won’t be enough; Obama also needs it to work on behalf of the Democratic party as a whole. While the infrastructure was built around Obama himself, his fellow Democrats need the help. Republicans derailed Obama's first-term agenda when they ran the table in the 2010 primaries. Obama needs his congressional allies if he hopes to put judges on the bench, pull the country out of economic doldrums, tackle climate change, and reform our broken immigration system. Obama for America's resources can't go to waste lest Democrats suffer another midterm shellacking.
Appoint the Right Economic Team
In his first term, President Obama appointed Larry Summers as his chief economic adviser and Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary. Summers and Geithner were not willing to fundamentally alter the banking system that caused the financial collapse of 2007-2008. As a result, too-big-to-fail banks are still putting the economy at risk and refusing debt relief to underwater homeowners. Summers and Geithner did not support a bigger stimulus, so the Recovery Act of February 2009 produced only a partial recovery. Summers and Geithner reinforced Obama’s own caution.
In his second term, Obama needs a Treasury secretary willing to be tougher with the banks, more imaginative when it comes to homeowner relief, and one who is not in the budget austerity camp. Obama has lately sounded tougher on what kind of budget deal he’ll accept. He would be smart to use the menace of Superstorm Sandy, and future storms like Sandy, to reopen the issue of greater public infrastructure spending rather than increased belt-tightening. A new economic team could help, but ultimately the president’s most important economic compass is himself. If his election win is a tonic to his imagination and nerve, we all benefit.
While Obama was unable to make good on his promise of passing comprehensive immigration reform in his first two years in office thanks to Republican stonewalling after passage of the Affordable Care Act, the president was able to offer some administrative relief to those left in legal limbo by our dysfunctional immigration system. In June of this year, the administration announced it would stop deporting undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the country “through no fault of their own” before age 16; had graduated from high school, earned a GED, or served in the military; and had no criminal record. The move was widely seen as an effort to provide relief for undocumented youth after the DREAM Act, which would have given undocumented youth brought to the country by their parents a path to citizenship, failed to pass the Senate in 2010. The Department of Homeland Security also suspended its 287(g) program, which authorized local law-enforcement officials—like Arizona’s notorious Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio—to enforce federal immigration laws.
But none of these administrative measures scratches the surface of the problems with the immigration system, which include overburdened courts, deplorable conditions in immigrant-detention centers, draconian family-unification policies, insufficient work Visas and arbitrary Visa caps, years-long administrative delays, and per-country caps that do not reflect current economic and humanitarian demands. The dysfunction in our immigration system is largely the reason there are 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.
Buoyed by his re-election and with key Republicans eager to soften their image with Latino voters, Obama has a prime opportunity to modernize our outdated and dysfunctional immigration system. Doing so is both savvy politically and necessary from an economic and humanitarian standpoint: It will redound to the president and his party’s advantage; serve to meet the needs of the agriculture and technology sectors, which rely heavily on immigrant labor; and provide humanitarian relief for those fleeing poverty in their home countries. While the president is sure to face stalwart opposition from hard-line anti-immigrant legislators, he only needs to rally his party behind him and win over the support of a critical mass of Republicans. Immigrant-rights groups are rightly pushing for the president to undertake comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, before his political capital begins to wane and he slips into the lame-duck twilight of his presidency.
Deal with Climate Change
First, let’s acknowledge the things Obama has done on climate change. In 2011, he raised the Environmental Protection Agency-regulated mileage standards for trucks and cars—they will have to get 35.5 miles per gallon, on average, by 2016. He tried to jump-start a renewable-energy sector here, however tepidly, by providing for $90 billion in funding for green-energy research, development, and jobs. He’s done other, less flashy but no less sensible things, like holding up the development of the Keystone pipeline meant to ship oil from Canada, though he didn’t end the project.
Despite all this, Obama’s first term will be remembered, rightly, for what he didn’t do: sign a comprehensive climate change bill. A bill that would have set up a permit system limiting the overall amount of greenhouse gas emissions—called cap-and-trade—passed the House and stalled in the Senate; Obama used most of his political capital to push health-care legislation through instead. After the election, Obama’s political capital is renewed, and he mentioned climate change in his victory speech November 6. He should use his post-election popularity to help leaders in Congress muscle through a comprehensive climate-change bill. It won’t be perfect, and it likely won’t do enough to halt some of the most immediate effects from climate change, but it’ll be a start.
Nominate More Judges
After Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, there was hope that he would begin to staff the federal judiciary with liberals in order to reverse the rightward drift of the federal judiciary. Instead—to the potential detriment of his policies and priorities—he’s done little to make a mark. A report released earlier this year showed that, when staffing the nation’s most powerful courts, Obama leaned toward established moderates—not the younger liberals who would have a lasting influence on the direction of American jurisprudence. When you combine this with unprecedented Republican obstruction of the people he actually nominated, you're left with a court system that is still favorable to Republicans.
In his second term, Obama should put real energy into staffing the federal judiciary with judges amenable to progressive ideas. Throughout his two terms, President George W. Bush made an aggressive push to put conservatives on the bench, and Obama should do the same with progressives. That includes appointees for the lowest federal courts all the way up to the Supreme Court: It's likely that, over the course of his next term, Obama will have a chance to replace two justices, possibly three. Choosing liberals is a way to ensure that the key successes of his presidency—the Affordable Care Act, for instance—survive into the long-term.