JONATHAN COHN MARCH 12, 2012
Yes, we know we’re tempting fate. But we figure there’s a 50 percent chance Obama will get reelected, and in any case he needs an agenda to campaign on. So we’ve asked a number of TNR contributors to explain what they think Obama should focus on for the next four years—if he wins in November. Click here to read the collected contributions.
The strangest thing happened outside my house two hours ago. I killed a mosquito. In Michigan. In early March. If I had any doubts about what President Obama’s top priority should be in his second term, that moment erased them.
Scientists say this is the fourth warmest winter on record. By itself, that fact (like the insect I just crushed) tells us nothing about climate change, given that temperatures inevitably bounce around from year to year. But this winter's weather is part of a much broader, more gradual warming trend that virtually every scientist not on the payroll of a coal or energy company has observed. (See the graph at the end of this article.)
As you probably remember, Obama had hoped to make a comprehensive climate change bill part of his first term legacy. And the House, under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, quickly passed a bill that would have created a cap-and-trade scheme for controlling emissions. But Republicans teamed up with coal-state Democrats in the Senate to kill it. And once the health care fight was over, Congress lost its interest in sweeping legislation.
Unfortunately, Congress isn't likely to change its mind after the next election, even though the case for climate change legislation only become stronger. The reason health care reform passed in 2010, and the reason the administration had chosen to prioritize it, was a combination of factors: The industry stakeholders agreed on the need for action. Liberals had spent a decade organizing around reform. And so on. The campaign for climate change just hasn’t progressed that far. Until it does, significant legislation is unlikely to pass.
So what might Obama do instead? I’d put in a plug for improving early childhood care, a cause that even conservatives could embrace and that, at the very least, Obama could help elevate. But I also like Mark Schmitt’s suggestion for political reform and David Greenberg’s suggestion that Obama take the opportunity to “talk like a liberal.” The expiration of the Bush tax cuts, combined with the impending sequestration of funds from last summer’s budget deal, means Obama will have a chance to make progress on reducing the deficit—just as William Galston would prefer. And if Obama manages to win a second term, his power to issue regulations would give him a chance to defend civil liberties in the way that Jeff Rosen rightly advocates.
But the chance to accomplish some or all of those goals isn't the main reason Obama's second term could prove so important.
In Greenberg’s otherwise fine essay, he suggests, offhand, that Obama “accomplished relatively little in his first term.” I could not disagree more strongly. Health care reform alone constitutes a major legislative legacy. The Recovery Act launched infrastructure and energy projects that could shape the economy and, by the way, education for a generation. The financial regulation bill created a new consumer bureau and a new regimen for regulating the banks. I could go on.
None of these measures went as far as they could. All demand careful implementation and, ideally, all would undergo expansion. But the Republicans have pledged to the very opposite. They’re going to get rid of these laws if they can, undermine them if they cannot. And don't let the recent poll numbers fool you: They could easily win in November, making all of this possible.
This election is about ratifying, and protecting, the accomplishments of last four years. For that reason, Obama’s top priority for a second term should be getting one.