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9 Kick-Ass Things Obama Should Do In a Second Term

The chances are rising for an Obama second term. But what do we really want him to do?
 
 
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Lady Luck may be smiling once again upon President Obama. The unemployment rate is coming down from post-WWII highs, the Grand Old Party is having a grand old time demolishing itself, and the chances are rising for an Obama second term -- this week his favorability ratings went into positive territory for the first time in months. His chances of re-election are running at 60 percent on Intrade, the betting market.  

But what do we really want him to do? Is our only wish that Obama be better than whichever right-wing Neanderthal he runs against? Or do we have a compelling vision for America we’d like him to enact? If so, what is it?   

To get this debate going, here's a modest list I believe would have resonance with the vast majority of Americans, assuming the president really gets behind them. (My editor warned me not to go off the deep end, so forgive me for not aiming too high.)  

1. Free higher education at all public institutions of higher education.

The airwaves are full of pious bluster about how America needs a more educated workforce in order to compete globally, blah blah blah. Yet we have no compelling public policy to get us there. Instead, students are becoming indentured servants as they struggle to pay back enormous student loans. It’s about time we learned from the GI Bill of Rights, which allowed millions of WWII-era veterans to go to school for free.

Now is the time to do the same for all Americans by waiving tuition at every public college and university in the country (including community colleges and graduate schools). You get in, you go for free. Yes, it’s a costly program, maybe $50 billion or more per year. (We’ll get to revenue questions below.) But the impact on our economy and society would be immensely positive. 

First of all, eliminating tuition would send millions back to school. That alone would lower the unemployment rate rapidly. Second, millions of new education-related jobs would be created to meet the increased demand -- jobs that could not be outsourced. And most importantly, we’d have a much smarter workforce and a more informed population, which is crucial both for our economy and our democracy. 

2. Add a million teachers (and teachers' aides) to the public school system.

It’s a disgrace that local school districts all over the country are cutting back on teachers due to a financial crash caused by Wall Street’s greed. It’s even a bigger disgrace that the gap in educational outcomes between rich and poor students is widening. One effective antidote is for the federal government to fund local school districts to add a million new teachers over the next year. Not only would such a program help increase the educational outcomes of all children, but also, it would cut deeply and quickly into the unemployment rate. There is no better way to put our people to work. 

3. Medicare for all.

It’s time for the president to admit that his hodge-podge healthcare program is deeply flawed. It should be replaced as soon as possible with a single payer/Medicare-for-all system. We need a simple, easy-to-use system that gives everyone access to good healthcare -- including preventive care -- from cradle to grave. No more employer-provided insurance. No more private insurance companies figuring out how to avoid paying claims. No more wasteful administrative BS. If Canada can do it, so can we…but only if the president fights for it for the next four years.

4. Manhattan Project for renewable energy.

To help win WWII, America created the massive Manhattan Project to build the first atomic weapons. To help win the Cold War, American created NASA and won the race to the moon. To win the battle against climate change, we’ll need a similar effort to create the next generation of renewable energy technologies to replace fossil fuels. Not only would such a project lead to a new, clean energy infrastructure, but the knowledge gained along the way would invigorate nearly every industry in our economy.

5. Financial transaction tax.

How do we pay for free higher education, a million more teachers, universal healthcare and a Manhattan Project for renewable energy? Place a small tax on each and every sale of stocks, bonds, futures and derivatives. That’s the most efficient way to move money away from the wasteful financial casinos and move it to more productive sectors of the economy. At the moment, the vast majority of all stock market trades come from speculators, especially from high-frequency traders. It’s time they made a contribution to the rest of society. A relatively small financial tax could generate $150 billion a year. 

6. Break up the big banks.

President Obama and his key financial aides spent most of his first term preserving our banking structure. Yes, there are more rules (which are far too weak), but the too-big-to-fail banks are even bigger now and everyone knows it. Everyone also knows that we’ll bail out the bastards yet again whenever their gambling threatens the system. It’s time to end this sham: No bank or hedge fund shall have more than $10 billion in assets. Instead of a handful of major banks, we’d have hundreds of smaller ones. I know, I know. It’s hard to imagine Obama and Geithner having the nerve to push such a program. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn't push them to the wall on this issue.

7. Fifty-percent income tax on all income over $5 million a year (with no loopholes).

Under Eisenhower, the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent. Today the effective rate on those making a million bucks or more is 23 percent -- and the richest 400 families pay barely 16 percent. For Mitt Romney, it’s only 13.9 percent. Instead of haggling about raising the top rates on those earning $250,000 or more, President Obama should target the big fish – those who have walked off with our nation’s wealth. He should remind the public that the Wall Street scamsters (who milked the housing bubble and then ran for cover) did not have to give back their fictitious gains. He should remind the nation that the bailouts saved these millionaires’ butts. It’s time to pay us back.

8. Get behind a constitutional amendment to end the buying of elections.

Our political financing system is a total, unmitigated disaster, made even worse by the Supreme Court. Every politician is up for sale and Americans are disgusted by it. The only reform that will work is a constitutional amendment that eliminates big money from politics and replaces it with a sane system of public financing. This issue should be a no-brainer for the president to embrace.

9. Legalize pot/empty the prisons.

By any measure, we lead the world in people who are in prison, on parole and on probation. More than half of the “criminals” in our federal judicial system are there because of drug-related crimes. Since the war on drugs took off 25 years ago, our penal population has risen from 300,000 to more than two million, making the prison system the biggest growth industry in the country. And urban minorities are disproportionally represented. Prohibition didn’t work on booze and it doesn’t work on drugs either. It’s certain the president understands this issue. But does he have the courage to speak out?

A New Agenda

Dream on, you say? Won’t the Republican House (should there still be one) kill all these ideas? Or if the Republicans don’t, won’t the Democrats cave in?    

Well, you’re absolutely right. But that’s not the point. We can’t get from here to there unless we articulate a new agenda that would really make a difference in our everyday lives. I don’t care if the president loses each and every battle for this kind of agenda, as long as he really makes the case for a new direction and shifts the terms of debate. We don’t need Obama to start every battle by accepting the right’s framework (as in he did in the debt reduction debate). We don’t need Obama to come up with flaccid compromises that walk us backward (as he did in the healthcare debacle). We need a president who really leads -- and not just when he’s running for office. 

But the problem is not just Obama’s. It really starts with the rest of us who fear we will hurt the Democrats if we push too hard for major reforms. We want President Obama to be the next FDR, but we don’t know how to build the kind of mass movement that made FDR possible. One of these days we’ll realize that profound change will come only if we build an independent 99 Percent movement based on bold ideas. And yes, that will take years to build. In the meantime, we need to keep alive the vision of a more just, equitable and sustainable society by asking for what we really want.    

That’s my list. What’s yours?

Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It (Chelsea Green, 2009).

 
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