Obama Second-Term Agenda: Everything, All at Once
President Barack Obama begins his second term today with room to breathe. The global financial system is not failing, the U.S. housing market is not collapsing, and American jobs are not evaporating. Meanwhile, after a convincing win in November, his approval rating is robust, and the federal government’s fiscal condition is fitfully, contentiously improving.
Yet any notion that Obama might use his second term merely to consolidate the shaky gains of his first, particularly the complex implementation of his landmark health-care law, was obliterated last week when the president announced his agenda for addressing gun violence. Although Obama’s time in office is now fixed, his ambition is not similarly bounded.
The question, then, is how best to deploy it. Or, to put it more plainly, how should he prioritize his agenda? Here’s our suggestion: Don’t. Do everything at once.
The usual advice, we realize, is for a president to focus on one big effort at a time. In a polarized capital with a dysfunctional Congress, one can only accomplish so much. Better to rally public opinion and wavering legislators to one cause at a time.
We appreciate the logic, but we’re less sure that Congress will. For legislation supported by the White House to pass the Republican-majority House, a critical mass of Republicans will have to be in favor of a vote -- whether they ultimately go on record in support of the legislation or not.
Yet many Republicans remain committed to opposing Obama regardless of policy. An orderly, serial succession of issues might enable them to consolidate their opposition, rallying less adamant colleagues to a united front. It could be more fruitful for the White House to pursue a multipronged agenda -- pushing gun safety, immigration reform and fiscal retrenchment simultaneously. That might allow individual Republicans to camouflage rare instances of heretical agreement with the White House amid a general trend of opposition.
Despite such scattershot means, the unifying theme of Obama’s second-term agenda would be the continuing effort to use government to create a more just and equitable society. That was a crucial element of his health-care initiative, which recognized that unequal access to health care is a matter of social equity as well as national health. It undergirds his preferred policies of taxation and his allocation of spending, which are designed to mitigate heightened inequality. It even informs his proposals on gun safety.
In his remarks last week, Obama decried the imbalance that affords maximum gun rights to some at the expense of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for others. The president has similarly called for justice for undocumented immigrants who contribute to the national economy and culture without benefit of the nation’s legal protections.
The premise applies abroad as at home. In his first term Obama too often placed greater emphasis on America’s interests than on its ideals. Pragmatism is essential. But so is championing human rights and living up to the U.S.’s singular role as guarantor, in spirit if not always in deed, of liberty.
That promise is redeemed, now as in the past, by American prosperity. The sometimes noisy expansion of rights that has defined American history has always benefited from a silent partner: an energetic economy. Likewise the path of each of Obama’s second-term initiatives would be smoothed by a return of middle-class prosperity, or rendered impassable by economic contraction. Renewed economic growth remains vital to the nation’s -- and Obama’s -- success.
Given the volatile political environment, any White House legislative strategy will have to be adaptable to shifting conditions. Obama’s first term began in crisis, which afforded its own kind of structure. He begins his second with greater leeway but fewer imperatives. To realize his ambitions, and move the nation forward, the president will have to be inventive in clearing a path.
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