By Dylan Matthews, Idriss Fofana, Ian Kumekawa, Daniel Villafana and Lucy Caplan
Next week, President-elect Obama and the new Congress will take ownership of a struggling economy, devastated planet, and two overseas wars, among other challenges. Out of these myriad problems, Perspective has selected the nine issues most deserving of attention and constant scrutiny by the government and an active progressive citizenry. They are, in no particular order:
1. The Economic Crisis
A pressing order of business for the new administration is passing a stimulus package. The goal, according to Obama, is not kickstarting growth so much as creating jobs – 3 to 4 million of them, roughly. His proposal will cost $800 billion over the course of two years, and includes $300 billion in tax cuts, about 40% of the total proposal. The rest of the proposal includes incentives to create green jobs, infrastructure investments, grants to fund state-level social welfare programs, and extensions of unemployment insurance and health benefits.
While originally intending to have the bill passed in time for Obama to sign it immediately after taking office on January 20, Congressional leaders are now predicting slower passage. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is now forecasting House passage by the end of January, with Obama signing the bill by the Presidents’ Day Recess. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that she will hold emergency sessions during that recess if a bill is not passed by that time. Whether it is finally passed in January, February, or even later, there is no doubting that the stimulus tops the Obama administration and the Congressional leaderships’ domestic agenda.
However, there are several stumbling blocks that may prevent timely passage. Predictably, the right is attacking the bill for being too reliant on government programs. Specifically, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell objects to grants to fund state Medicaid programs, as well extending unemployment benefits and health coverage. He has said he fears the latter extensions would become permanent; after all, the last thing the Republican leadership wants is permanent health care for those who need it. The bill also faces opposition from liberal Senators, who rightly object to its over reliance on tax cuts. Sen. Tom Harkin has condemned the plan as “trickle-down stimulus”. That said, the perceived urgency of the economic crisis leaves little doubt that the stimulus will pass soon, albeit perhaps not in its original form.
2. Universal health care
Though Obama’s rhetoric in the primary was cautious relative to that of his rival, all signs point to a major push for universal health care during 2009. Obama’s health policy staffing decisions signal that he’s taking the issue seriously. He has selected Tom Daschle, the former Senate Majority Leader, to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. Choosing such a high-profile secretary – and one with the chops to push a reform bill through Congress – suggests that Obama wants health care legislation passed in the near-term. In addition, Daschle will be chairing a new White House Office of Health Reform, with well-regarded health wonk Jeanne Lambrew as his deputy. Placing health reform staffers in the West Wing means they’ll have a regular audience with the president, which will be critical if health reform is to get the attention it needs. Finally, the selection of Sanja Gupta as Surgeon General, with health reform as part of his portfolio, signals that health care will get the comprehensive press strategy it needs to pass. While bad PR helped doom the Clinton health care effort, Obama considers the job selling the plan to the media so important that he’s tasked it to the nation’s best-known medical personality.
For its part, Congress suggests it is going to cooperate in the reform effort. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee chairman Ted Kennedy has created special working groups to help craft legislation, and has been holding weekly meetings with stakeholders for several months now. Senate Finance committee chairman Max Baucus – a conservative Democrat who has voted for the Bush tax cuts and Medicare Part D – has introduced a plan of his own which is, if anything, more ambitious than Obama’s. Between the incoming presidential health policy staff and this news out of the Senate, health reform looks to be near the top of the agenda for 2009.
The “good war” in Afghanistan could not be deteriorating more quickly. The Taliban is resurgent, US casualties are up, and al-Qaeda has retrenched itself on the Pakistani borders. The response of the military is yet another “surge”. 20,000 to 30,000 new troops will arrive in the country by summer of 2009, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has announced. Given as there are 31,000 American troops in the country already, this could result in a doubling of US forces.
There is broad political support for this move; both Obama and John McCain campaigned on deploying more troops to Afghanistan. However, it is doubtful that even a doubling of forces would make rebuilding Afghanistan possible. Afghanistan has a population 19 percent larger than that of Iraq, and a land area 49 percent larger, with much tougher terrain to boot. Under the troop ratios called for by current counterinsurgency doctrine, a force of 400,000 troops would be necessary to win in Afghanistan, meaning even a force of 61,000 would be inadequate. A better strategy would reject a troop surge in favor of more focused usage of current troops, diverting them away from nation-building in favor of their original purpose: driving al-Qaeda out of the region.
More promising is the incoming administration’s approach to negotiations. Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Afghanistan force commander General David McKiernan, and CENTCOM chief General David Petraeus have all indicated a willingness to broker negotiations between the Afghan government and more pragmatic divisions of the Taliban. Given the openness of Afghan president Hamid Karzai to the idea, this approach could result in a brokered peace settlement before the troop buildup boosts violence to dangerous levels. With Vice President-elect Joe Biden visiting the country for talks before even taking office, it appears likely that such peace negotiations will be a major priority for the administration.
While certainly deleterious toward the prospects for a near-term peace deal, the Israeli butchering of Gaza has performed its thinly-veiled purposed of helping its executors politically. The centrist Kadima/Labor coalition that is conducting the campaign has shot up in the polls since the bombing began, overtaking the conservative Likud party that had been leading. While neither bloc is sufficiently committed to peace, Kadima and Labor have shown considerably more interest in the peace process than Likud. The coalition’s Prime Minister-designate, Tzipi Livni, was the driving force behind the 2007 Annapolis summit, and has shown a greater willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians than many within her party. Further, the victory of far-right, rabidly anti-Arab candidates in the Likud primaries mean that peace would be a virtual impossibility under a Likud government, making any alternative preferable by default.
For his part, Obama appears poised to appoint Dennis Ross as his envoy to the Middle East, including Israel and Palestine. This is an unfortunate decision. Ross was the head negotiator at Camp David, in which he represented a right flank that was transparently biased toward Israel and unreceptive to Palestinian concerns. One of his colleagues, Aaron David Miller, has dubbed him “Israel’s lawyer” for his conduct in those talks. Further, Ross has advanced a pernicious narrative since the talks, saying that their failure was the result of Palestinian rejectionism, and of perfidy on the part of Yassir Arafat in particular. Nearly every other participant has rejected this account, including Miller, Rob Malley, Daniel Kurtzer, and former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. Indeed, these participants all agree that the deal on offer at Camp David was wholly unfair to the Palestinians, and Ben-Ami has said he never would have taken it had he been on the Palestinian side. While appointing a high profile on envoy like Ross signals that the peace process is a priority for the administration, a more progressive choice, such as Miller, Malley, or Kurtzer would be better able to make headway in negotiations.
Change has been the message of Barack Obama’s campaign since its inception. Therefore, we should expect the Obama administration to mark a departure from current education policy.
Obama has promised to downplay the importance of standardized testing which has contributed to an environment where “creativity has been drained from classrooms, as too many teachers are forced to teach to fill-in-the-bubble tests.” Obama has said that he will seek funding for alternative sources of assessment, but with the economy is dire straights, it is unlikely that large-scale changes in education policy requiring a greater financial outlay will be prioritized.
The importance of standardized testing is a key issue for Obama in his criticism of “No Child Left Behind.” President Obama has essentially indicted the implementation of the program and the lack of funding rather than its guiding goals. The president is proposing initiating new teacher residency programs as well as providing more money to schools which, again, may pose a problem for a country facing severe economic hardships. Also, Obama should still seek to address the weight that the program places on standardized testing, which has indeed left entire school districts behind.
Obama’s choice of Arne Duncan as proposed Secretary of Education represents a compromise. Duncan straddles the line between the camp that stresses the importance of holding teachers and schools accountable to underperforming students and the camp that pushes for increases in non-school-based government initiatives to help improve the educational lot of less advantaged students. Some have criticized Duncan for being too draconian in his punitive policies as CEO of Chicago Public Schools. But certainly, with the choice of Duncan, Obama has left the door open to a great number of much needed reforms.
6. LGBT Rights
Barack Obama’s change.gov website identifies LGBT rights as a key part of its “Civil Rights Agenda.” It prominently features a quotation from Obama stating that “the issue of LGBT rights…is about who we are as Americans. It’s about whether this nation is going to live up to its founding promise of equality by treating all its citizens with dignity and respect.” But Obama’s selection of Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration has already drawn his commitment to LGBT rights into question.
LGBT rights are sure to be a key issue during Obama’s presidency. Obama’s primary goal should be to repeal two federal acts, the Defense of Marriage Act, which says that a state does not have to recognize other states’ definitions of marriage, and the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. During his campaign, Obama indicated that he planned to repeal both of these acts, and he will hopefully live up to this promise. Marriage rights will certainly be another central aspect of the LGBT rights debate during Obama’s presidency. With the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California, twenty-nine states now ban same-sex marriage via constitutional amendments, and eighteen others have laws that prohibit it. The opposition of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage will be Obama’s most important priority in this debate. While Obama is not a supporter of gay marriage, he does support civil unions that give same-sex couples the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples. Finally, Obama should work hard to establish a federal policy that prohibits employment discrimination against LGBT people. Only by committing to a progressive LGBT rights agenda can President Obama live up to the “founding promise of equality” that he has promised.
7. The Iraq War
2008 has been a very encouraging year in Iraq, at least by the appalling standards we’ve come to judge “progress” in this war. Only 314 US troops dies last year, almost a third the number of deaths in 2007. President Bush’s surge strategy appears to have contributed to the decline and violence. Nonetheless, important initiative will have to be taken over the coming years to ensure a safe transition in Iraq as well as the return of US troops.
The first objective of the Obama administration should be to continue the transition of US troops from combat missions to a police and security centered approach. Indeed, an equally important death toll is 8,000 to 9000 Iraqi civilian deaths this year. As the US shifts from the combat approach which revealed its limitations during the disastrous Rumsfeld years in Iraq, US forces must accelerate the training and transfer of authority to Iraqi forces. Iraqi forces will have to extend their efforts beyond Baghdad where violence has not declined as much.
Second, the Obama administration must devise a pull-out plan that makes continued withdrawal of troops contingent on reaching security benchmarks. A troop withdrawal is essential for a return to a fully functional Iraq. It should be evident to everyone that Iraqis are eager to return to a state of complete independence and the United States should not stand in their way. Nonetheless, pulling out of Iraq will be a very delicate situation and the Obama administration will have to take care to ensure that Iraqi forces are prepared to assume the void they leave.
Finally, Obama should not neglect the political work necessary to return Iraq to peace, something the Bush administration ignored too easily. The president and the secretary of state should regularly discuss the salient political issue in the country with Iraqi leaders instead of working through military leader. Such a shift in policy will be essential to moving Iraq away from a sort of American tutelage.
8. Nuclear Non-Proliferation
While the Bush Administration has made some progress in nuclear non-proliferation, however the President failed to establish a coherent non-proliferation policy. One of the successes of the Bush years was the signature of the Moscow Treaty with Russia. The agreement stipulates that the United States and Russia will reduce the number of their strategic nuclear warheads to between 1700 and 2200 warheads by 2013. However, the Bush administration non-proliferation initiatives were undermined promotion of research on “bunker buster” missiles designed to reach underground facilities while limiting the peripheral damage. The proposition was part a post-September 11th defense policy in which President Bush argued that the US needed an offensive policy in which it the US reserved the right to attack countries it believed were developing weapons. This policy was used to justify the war in Iraq.
An Obama nuclear policy should strengthen President Bush’s efforts to cooperate with Russia to reduce nuclear arsenals, while strengthening diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. President-Elect Obama’s record on non-proliferation is encouraging. Along with Senator Lugar, President-elect Obama introduced a bill that strengthened efforts to secure nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union. More importantly, however, a President Obama would have to deal with what Mohamed El-Baradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency called the conflict of the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Over the coming years, nuclear powers will have to address increasing demands from developing nations to develop their own nuclear capabilities for energy use. As a result, the Obama administration must be mindful to undermine its message by expanding America’s nuclear capabilities. Also, America will have to engage in frank diplomacy with Iran and North Korea in order to prevent these countries from developing nuclear weapons.
9. Global Warming
The Blue Man Group’s claim that our planet does not have any emergency exits may be proven false as we transition to a new administration. Barack Obama’s New Energy for America Plan shows a lot of promise. The plan will improve the lives of millions of Americans while simultaneously reducing green house gas emissions substantially.
The pressure on oil companies will increase. Oil companies will have to give $500 dollar rebates to individuals and $1000 to married couples. These rebates are the first step to long term plan of providing middle class families with $1000 in annual tax relief. A “Use it or Lose it” plan, will force oil companies to drill on the 108 acres of land they have in the U.S. Although this will not lower emissions, it will decrease the country’s dependency on foreign oil.
Aside from the annual tax relief, families will benefit much more from the plan. New Energy for America is said to create 5 million new jobs. Of these jobs the “Green Vet Initiative” will provide counseling and job training for veteran soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. LIHEAP will receive additional funding so that 1 million low-income homes will be weatherized annually.
Roads will also change. The plan will require that 60 billion gallons of biofuel be available by 2030. This may pose a problem if ethanol from corn is used however. As for our grid, 10% of the nation’s electricity must come from renewable sources by 2012, and 25% by 2020.
America’s new goals will not be kept within its borders. Obama will work with UNFCC and MEM to make emission reduction efforts a priority to other high emitting nations. Obama also plans to reduce America’s oil consumption by the amount currently imported from the Middle East and Venezuela within the next 10 years.
Obama’s biggest commitment to fight global warming is an economy wide cap-and-trade system that will reduce green house gasses 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.