Obama Can Still Salvage His Presidency: His Top Priorities for Me…

…are, in order of importance:

  • global climate change
  • criminal justice reform
  • immigration reform

Global Climate Change

I am greatly encouraged by what I’ve seen and heard lately from the Obama Administration on global climate change. Several people inside his White House have indicated that he has settled on this as his signature issue, the thing he must get done in the final two years of his Presidency. Not that they care, but I agree.

Humanity is in peril. I know that sounds extremist. I know that most people disagree or have no opinion. Most people are wrong. The science is there. The math cannot be argued. The trend lines are all wrong. We are headed for catastrophe. We have already gone too far to avert it; all we can do now is minimize the damage from it. If everyone in America read Greg Craven’s book, What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate, we could end the discussion and proceed to addressing the problem. He demonstrates with absolutely unarguable logic that the cost of doing nothing is far too enormous a risk to take.

But conservatives keep bringing out the same old short-term and short-sighted arguments. Climate reform, they say, will cost jobs, interfere with America’s global competitiveness, and hurt the economy. Those are opinions, not facts. But let’s grant for the moment — and only for the moment — that they are right. Global climate change must still be stopped. Because it is not a short-term problem, it is harder for people to grasp its significance. But what we are doing to the planet today will affect our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. When faced with a chance to do something about a huge, long-term peril, a true leader sacrifices near-term goals as short-sighted thinking.

“President Obama has made no secret that his climate crusade will proceed irrespective of what the American people want or what other global leaders caution,” said Laura Sheehan of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents the coal industry. And so it should! What the American people want cannot be paramount, not now, not in the face of this impending crisis for the entire planet. We don’t get to cast the only vote.

Affordable energy, jobs, and freedom from regulation are all short-term and short-sighted goals that ignore the reality that the human race is in peril. It is at times like these that true leadership emerges. To refuse to do the popular thing, the easy thing, to pursue the path of least resistance in the face of enormous obstacles is to pursue doomed policy. What will it matter if unemployment ticks up another point or two — and 50 years from now everyone is in peril? This is Big Picture Time and only a “lame duck” President willing to risk the judgment of history and with a vision big enough to ignore the near term politics is suited to it.

But it will take courage and stubbornness and a willingness to be attacked repeatedly, possibly even impeached. “Yet even some of Obama’s existing steps could well be repealed by ascendant Republicans in Congress, who also have plans to stop the president from going any further,” according to this AP story today. “Republicans are finding common cause with many Democrats in trying to force Obama to approve Keystone XL, a proposed pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. And with the GOP set to take over the Senate in January, Republicans are already pursuing a concerted effort to gut his Environmental Protection Agency’s rules on power plants….”

Renewable fuels must be the cornerstone. It’s not enough to reduce pollution and reliance on carbon-based fuels because our economy still needs energy to be sustainable. What has to change is the kind of energy we produce and use. Conservatives don’t seem able to imagine a country in which many if not most of the jobs being shed by an industry that is literally a dinosaur can be replaced by jobs producing the next century’s energy. This is not policy, it is short-term politics.

I hope — and fervently pray — that President Obama will have the courage and the vision to see this through to the maximum extent he can in the face of withering blind opposition stuck in the next election cycle.

 Criminal Justice Reform

I rank this ahead of immigration reform for three reasons:

First, it affects a far greater number of people.

Second, there appears to be somewhat broad bipartisan support for it.

Third, it is a much more complex problem that requires a clear-headed thinker and while I’ve not always agreed with Obama nor considered him clear-headed, he seems likely to be more clear-headed than anyone from either major political party I see as viable candidates in 2016. Thus, I think immigration reform is more likely to get done in 2-3 years.

Immigration reform is the smarter political choice. Many of those who would be affected by criminal justice reform can’t vote. Of those that can, perhaps most are not Democrats. And I am not discounting the impact of a proper immigration policy on the 11 million undocumented workers in America. But the criminal justice system is out of control and it’s going to take a major shift in thinking to bring about the needed reforms.

Katrina vanden Heuvel took a close look at this issue in the Washington Post today. Here is her succinct summary of the problem’s components.

During the past four decades, the U.S. prison population has quadrupled even as the crime rate has dropped. We have some 2.4 million people behind bars, far more than any other country, costing about $80 billion a year to maintain. Worse yet, as result of racial disparities in sentencing, more than half of U.S. prisoners are minorities. These staggering statistics stem from the failure of the “war on drugs,” the true impact of which can only be measured in destroyed lives and devastated communities, especially among the most marginalized segments of society.

If you multiply 2.4 million behind bars by an average of eight people in their families who are also dramatically affected, this is a 20-million person problem. And that’s just the prison part of the issue, which has far more tentacles than that one.

There are strong appeals to both conservatives (fiscal impact and moral obligation) and progressives (who see it as a racial justice issue). Already two major bills have been introduced in the Senate with plenty of bipartisan (or what vanden Heuvel calls “transpartisan”) support.

But she also says that getting any legislation passed in 2015 is going to be tough sledding. Not because of a lack of support but because of conflicting and overcrowded agendas between the parties and inevitably between Congress and the White House.

This is a place where Obama can use his bully pulpit to influence some key votes and perhaps get something meaningful, if not comprehensive, done.

Immigration Reform

The framework is already in place for the President to use his Executive powers — which Republicans, who are now predictably howling about his “abuse of power” demanded for their guy when he sat on the throne — to accomplish important work here. I presume he will soon implement that set of policies and the debates and threats and arguments and irrationality will already have begun in a small number of days.

Beyond those reforms, however, Obama still must find more that he can convince a semi-reluctant Congress to do in this important area. His proposed actions, from what we know so far at least, only affect about 5 million undocumented workers, mostly those who are parents of kids who already have citizenship or where brought here too young to be subject to deportation under any sane and humane policy.

We still need a comprehensive immigration policy shift across the board. It must be aimed at striking a balance that neither overburdens our economy and political system nor unnecessarily rejects those who seek an improved life and can contribute to our success as a nation. This is a major tightrope walk and only a lame duck President with no fear of political consequences can lead the walk across it.

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