What do you think will be the two or three biggest items on Obama’s agenda? Do you think he’ll be able to pull them off?
Janet Martin: The major issue that will dominate the President’s agenda will be increasing deficits and the national debt. Hard choices have yet to be made to address the problem of insufficient revenues to meet federal spending obligations. Without 60 Democratic votes in the Senate, or a Democratic majority in the House, it is unlikely in a polarized Washington and nation that the President will easily find the path to budget surpluses. At the same time, the President will need to address persistent unemployment levels. An economic stimulus package that includes funds for jobs and at the same time works to rebuild a decaying infrastructure will be a potential item on the President’s agenda. However, any spending will require new sources of revenue.
Another major item will be immigration reform. The President began to move in the direction of initiating reform through the administrative directive issued by the Department of Homeland Security last summer to block deportation of a select group of undocumented aliens. To have sweeping reform, rather than the piecemeal approach to visas and citizenship that has emerged over the past few decades requires a major commitment on the part of the President and his administration.
Both of these efforts will require working with Congress. President Obama has mentioned golfing with Speaker Boehner. He will need to replace his golf cart with a van, as he needs to reach out to far more members of Congress, both formally and informally, in order to be successful in his legislative agenda. Working with the Speaker has not proven to be the key to legislative success.
To see the Affordable Health Care Act implemented will be a major issue facing the administration. The administration will need to work with the Governors. At the same time, funding for the Act and ongoing Court challenges will remain.
Andrew Rudalevige: Despite last week’s announcement, the President never talked about gun control in the campaign. The blasphemy in Newtown really shifted the agenda, and that’s what happens to presidents. They don’t control the policy agenda in a very rational way. You can lay out your list of plans and then 9/11 happens, or a series of shootings happen, or there’s a tsunami or the French decide to invade Mali.
One of the big things on the original second term agenda was immigration reform. And I think he will work on trying to get something comprehensive through Congress on that front. Republicans see this as an area where they want to, or perhaps need to, cooperate. You’ve got leadership within the party that realizes that, if nothing else, some sort of accommodation here is important to a voting demographic that the party needs to appeal to. There’s no real reason that they can’t. I think the Republicans will realize that some movement has to be made there in order not to disadvantage future presidential candidates.
The president also talked about trying to stabilize the fiscal situation, and there is a short-term and longer-term component to that.
The short term rests in avoiding national default and avoiding new “fiscal cliffs.” The longer term involves tax reform similar to the 1986 efforts at tax code reform. In 1986, they shrunk the number of tax brackets, lowering the rates quite dramatically in exchange for broadening the base of tax payments. They got rid of lots of things you could deduct, so you paid a lower rate but on more money that you earned. Over 25 years, manipulating the tax code has been a handy way to make policy. Bill Clinton loved it, as did George W. Bush. They’ve added all sorts of things back. There seems to be bipartisan agreement that it would be a good idea to go back to that model, to start again, but the details are very tricky to maneuver around. One person’s rational tax incentive is another person’s unfair loophole.
Can they come to a grand bargain on the fiscal questions? I think they’ll come to a not-so-grand bargain. But it will be something that at least pushes issues off five years instead of five months, in regards to social security and Medicare on the one hand, and discretionary spending on the other. And on the third hand — mixing my metaphors or perhaps my species here —is taxes and revenues. Some of that was settled by the Jan. 2 law. Some of it will have to be folded into larger-scale tax reform.
It would be nice if Congress reauthorized the elementary and secondary education act. It should have been reauthorized six years ago, and is running right now on regulatory tweaks and administrative orders; this is problematic for its stability and legitimacy. I would like to see them work on legal regime regarding the war on terror and the detention of ‘enemy combatants’. That’s one more thing he hasn’t talked about much and in fact has tried to avoid.
Immigration has a pretty good chance. Some kind of fiscal bargain, a pretty good chance. Anything else beyond that, I’m not so sure. It’s likely he’ll have one or two more Supreme court nominees he’ll try to move through, not to mention hundreds of lower-court nominees, which is an area where he was pretty sluggish in the first term. He needs to move now, while he still has a Senate majority, which is not guaranteed after 2014. Really presidents have a year and a half; after that everyone is worried about 2014 elections. And after that everyone is looking at 2016. Given how early the campaigns start, you can expect candidates on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire, in more than an exploratory way, as early as next year.