President Obama’s inauguration speech has reinvigorated his liberal base with promises of greater action on climate change, LGBT rights, and a commitment to the progressive paradigm of significant government involvement in society. Immigration reform, tax reform, and gun control are also on the second term agenda. After two years of costly conflict with Congressional Republicans, Obama also emphasized pragmatism stating, “[w]e cannot mistake absolutism for principle” and affirming his own limits as president by acknowledging that “[w]e must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.” An ambitious agenda fraught with pitfalls, but also with potential.
What realities and problems does Obama face in his second term, and how should he address them?
First, it is important to note that Obama did not directly mention his major policy success in his inauguration speech: the Affordable Care Act. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) remains divisive and 73 percent of Americans believe the law will cost more than projected, according to a poll by Rasmussen. This is not an unfounded fear. Medicare was originally projected to cost $12 billion annually by 1990, but in reality cost $110 billion in 1990. Or, perhaps another reason Obama isn’t promoting the ACA is because 26 states (64% of the U.S. population) are opting out of establishing health insurance exchanges, a key provision in the ACA.
A final reason is that many important provisions are to be implemented in the beginning of 2014 but are burdened with numerous problems. These include: setting up the insurance exchanges (see above), penalties for failing to purchase insurance (set lower than the cost to purchase insurance, expansion of Medicaid in states (optional for states), and the CLASS ACT, a long term care insurance program (repealed by the recent fiscal cliff deal because it was financially unsustainable). To conclude the ACA, the signature piece of legislation of Obama’s first term, is already collapsing under the weight of its own irrationality. Reforms must be made to the Affordable Care Act to make it sustainable.
Second, Obama and many Democrats have failed to acknowledge that the reelection of President Obama, and surprising gains in the Senate, should not be interpreted as a mandate for President Obama’s policy agenda. There is that little problem of the GOP controlling a majority in the House of Representatives. They have as much of a mandate as the President does, so therefore neither party has a mandate.
The Democrats should focus their rhetoric on cooperating and listening to the GOP, something they have ignored whenever possible for the last four years. GOP intransience is a reaction to executive overreach by President Obama and a single-minded approach of Congressional Democrats during Obama’s first two years in office. To be fair, Congressional Republicans could have acted better themselves in some instances; but after the fiscal cliff deal where Republicans have capitulated on everything but the estate tax, and ground-breaking bipartisan reforms of Senate procedure, one cannot make the case that Congressional Republicans are roadblocks to progress.
Third, given the current fiscal situation immigration, gun control, and climate reforms will be difficult to achieve, because fiscal issues will dominate the next few months. The fiscal cliff deal only solved part of the problem, but it delayed the spending cuts until March 1. Also, because the Democratically controlled Senate has failed to pass a budget in four years, the government has been operating off temporary spending bills, known as continuing resolutions, for the past few years. The current one will expire on March 27.
Finally, the debt ceiling is delayed until May after a bipartisan agreement was reached to postpone it for three months. Already, there is significant disagreement with how to solve the problem, Democrats want more revenue, but Republicans insist that enough revenue was passed through the fiscal cliff deal and instead want savings through real entitlement reforms. Given this whole charade is likely to repeat itself how can Congress get a deal on many reforms that Obama’s second term agenda entails?
Fortunately, there is consensus between both parties that immigration is a priority, but not for gun control or climate change. So it is unlikely that any legislation on those two issues will pass Congress. Instead, Obama will likely use, and is already using, his power as chief executive to engage in policy making in both areas. On gun control, he has proposed 23 executive actions, and on climate change there is a push by environmental groups to have the Environmental Protection Agency regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Act. While Obama does have significant executive authority, he should be wary in using it because significant executive actions in the past, like filling several NRLB positions through recess appointments (recently found to be unconstitutional), enrages Republicans and will hinder attempts at compromise on issues like the upcoming second fiscal cliff and immigration reform. Immigration reform actually has a chance of happening. Speaker John Boehner announced there is a bipartisan framework on immigration reform that has been on the works for the past few years.
Obama’s second term, like his first, will be fraught with conflict. But that is politics, and some conflict can certainly be avoided by smart politicking and policymaking. President Obama should recognize that many of his first term policies remain controversial and at times problematic from a policy perspective; he should be open to reforms to his first term policies, especially the Affordable Care Act. Also, Obama should recognize that the Republicans still control the House and they have a probable shot of controlling the Senate after the 2014 midterm elections. An effective President remains above the fray, willing to compromise even at the expense of his own base. Finally, Obama must focus on the problems he is given, not on other problems he wishes to fix. In other words, Obama must drop his emphasis on gun control issues and climate change, a move surely to enrage his own base, but also a move to give him the political space needed to focus on issues where solutions are likely to be found, rather than on divisive issues that will infuriate the very lawmakers he is must work with. Despite the failings of his first term, President Obama is still my President and I believe that he can achieve a lot if has the willpower to follow the merits of his inauguration speech and embrace pragmatism as necessity of governing rather an inconvenience of becoming the next FDR.