Eight Ways Obama Can Make Change Immediately

Election '08

"Yes We Can" was sung to victory particularly by millions of young people, single women and black and brown people of all ages. These are the soldiers in Barack Obama's great army -- poised to prove that the election was just the first battle in a war of many. Just as the campaign itself was a threat to the status quo and the powerful interests that profit from it, so will be much of Obama's new agenda, and it will be up to all of us to make ourselves heard again and again.

Obama's victory is clearly historic, but does it really change the world? Yes and no. A dark cloud has finally passed, and there is a bright opening for a future to be possible. But for the immediate future there will still be troops in Iraq, there will still be an economic crisis, there will still be famine and conflict in Africa, and there will still be terrorist elements all over the world aiming their anger at the United States and the rest of the developed world.

Obama asked for our patience. "We may not get there in one year or one term," said Obama in his victory speech, "but I have never been more hopeful that we will get there." He called for a government by "yes you can" and asked for people to continue their historic campaign for change. The fact that we will now have a president who is willing to listen to the people does not diminish the need for the people to speak up forcefully.

But can Obama make meaningful change immediately? The power of the presidency is often exaggerated, particularly in the first year, and those less familiar with Washington politics are often oblivious to the real political constraints and limitations on strategies that every new president faces. It's not difficult to predict that a lot of people will be very disappointed with how long it takes for some crucial things to change.

But this time the need for change is so great, the dereliction of duty and corruption of values at the top of government so extensive for so long, that a plan for less controversial and yet significant changes can be immediately possible. Furthermore, the rout of Republican losses in the House and Senate will make this immediate agenda legislatively viable.

A list of changes on the fast track:

1. Creation of a massive green jobs initiative, mobilizing the unemployed to transform our energy landscape toward sustainability, providing incentives to volunteerism, and mobilizing a national effort (in the style of a Manhattan Project) to green all of our cities. An investment of $150 billion over 10 years should be made to support renewable energy and get 1 million plug-in electric cars on the road by 2015. Starting with green government procurement policies, a new powerful push will be made in the right direction. Imagine all new government purchases: fuel, vehicles, construction materials, supplies, etc., all strictly environmentally correct. Strategic tax and federal funding policies can promote energy efficiency incentives along with disincentives to pollute.

2. Respect for science, and renewed use of expert and diverse presidential commissions to encourage more realistic assessments and innovative ideas for solutions.

3. Renewed respect for international law, and a new series of accords and alliances with other nations for mutual security, cooperation on global climate action, and the establishment of a clear timetable for eliminating all nuclear weapons. A national commitment to reduce America's carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050 and to play a strong positive role in negotiating a binding global treaty to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol should be an immediate priority. If it isn't, it means Obama needs citizen action to help it along.

4. Priority on educational quality, incentives for creativity, and the end of test-driven instruction.

5. Investment in the NGO community, creating channels for NGOs to influence and inform the policy process, mandatory service for pre-college students and tax credits for community services.

6. Closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center and developing a plan for a more educated, more ethical and better equipped military. Huge resources are spent on defense, some of those resources will be redirected to educate soldiers -- culturally, etc. -- and improve on the ways we try to win wars, i.e., feeding people rather than bombing them. De-politicizing military intelligence will help avoid repeating the kind of manipulation that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

7. Launch a major diplomatic effort to stop the killings in Darfur. Open diplomatic talks with countries like Iran and Syria to pursue peaceful resolution of tensions. Only negotiate new trade agreements that contain labor and environmental protections.

8. Internet privacy, network neutrality and access to broadband for all.

Policy re-directions on the most critical and controversial issues will take some time, and the most crucial one is stopping the war in Iraq. In this case, Obama would undoubtedly welcome strong grassroots agitation for a faster schedule of bringing soldiers home, and not just shifting the war to Afghanistan. While it is clear that a military solution is not in the cards, the war economy has more power in the downturns, and much outdated thinking needs to be transformed. Obama will need all our help in order to keep his promise to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months and keep no permanent bases in the country.

One would imagine that the melting financial system would necessitate large and sudden shifts in economic policy, but the resistance to regulation and to movement toward economic justice remains fierce. Fiscal discipline, more accountability, lower taxes on the middle class and higher taxes on the very rich will be a long-term project. Likewise, universal U.S. Senate-quality health care for all is going to take lengthy and intense negotiation with powerful interests. A fire needs to be kept at the feet of every representative in the halls of Congress and the White House for the right of Americans to have affordable, quality health care. And while the economic downturn may make it more difficult, the United States must accelerate the fight against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in Africa and Asia.

It is likely that Obama will soon pick at least two new justices on the Supreme Court, and women's right to make choices about their bodies will be preserved. Rumors are ripe that Hillary Clinton will be tapped for the bench, but in any event, the court will probably still stay fairly close to its current political balance. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court only hears fewer than 100 cases a year, and the federal and appellate courts are busy creating precedents and deciding the direction of American case law. In this area, Bush has dealt us a harsh blow. Many young judges have been appointed, and we will live with their judicial right-wing agenda for years to come. In time, Obama will mitigate the impact of this, too.

One immediate boost to our psycho-political sense of well-being will be Obama's invitation to experts of all persuasions to advise and inform the halls of power. Not only will the country be inspired by Obama's offer to work with Republicans and Independents closely, it will be thrilled to see him talk to people like Andrew Weil on the need to move toward integrative medicine and Warren Buffet on a smart federal investment policy, and the way the Obama administration will bring the nation's citizens to the table through vastly increased transparency and communication via the Internet.

America, ever more focused on itself, will be surprised and gladdened by the global outpouring of cheer and endorsement of our new internationally and instantly loved leader. America has redeemed itself for re-electing Bush, and is loved yet again for making a clear shift away from the misguided polices of its immediate past.

Most of all, America is loved for restoring long-overdue dignity to the non-white peoples of the world (the majority of humanity), and expressing in a most powerful way the truth of equality. In this way, all human beings on Earth will be immediate winners in the Obama drama. This is America's new and benign shock and awe. And this is just the beginning. The rest is up to us. Can we do it?

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