10 Big Goals for Obama's First 1,460 Days
Based on his 2008 campaign and 2009 exigencies, President Obama's mandate includes two huge and imminent priorities -- an unprecedented "stimulus" to revive the economy and a plan that gets us out of Iraq.
Eighteen months ago, John Podesta, head of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and I agreed to collaborate on a volume that gathered together the best progressive scholars, advocates, and experts to specifically describe agency-by-agency what a progressive 44th president could do on Day One, Year One, Term One. Then, of course, John had to recuse himself in August after he was tapped to run Obama's official transition -- and this month CAPAF and my New Democracy published the results -- progressive leaders pooling their best ideas and practices into a program we call:
As Obama prepares to take his oath, expectations are sky-high. Rightly so. The planets appear to be in alignment for a possible political realignment: Obama won by triple Bush's last margin; conservative stock is at Lehman Bros. levels, after a preventive war of choice, a deregulated economic meltdown and the conservative compassion of Katrina; Democrats now enjoy a 10 percentage point edge in voter registration, which is likely to grow given minority, youth and suburban professional trends; Democrats appear more united than anytime in recent memory, with no obvious DLC-Moveon fights over wars or deficits; and there's an authentic crisis that trumps pious platitudes about the free market and "family values."
Now, rather than stale left-right debates, there's a new mainstream for more progressive values, as surely represented by the shift of 13 U.S. Senate seats and 54 House seats over two congressional elections. This may not be 1932 but it's a bigger attitudinal shift than the one in 1980 to Reagan and "Reagan Democrats," when National Review publisher Bill Rusher prematurely gloated that "liberalism is dead."
Anticipating this shift, our Citizens Transition Project developed scores of workable solutions built on four cornerstones: more democracy, diplomacy, economic opportunity and green collar jobs. Since ad hoc policy-making can peter out unless the public sees changes being thematically interconnected -- like the "New Deal" -- we linked proposals to these core values of Progressive Patriotism. Especially after what Jared Bernstein called the failure of Yo-Yo Conservatism ("You're on Your Own"), what could be more pro-American than the idea of progress?
Hence these 10 Big Goals by 2012 or 2016. For if you don't know where you're headed, you'll never get there.
Some stipulations: given space constraints, ideas are merely asserted -- for more development, one can go to the chapters by the authors themselves in Change for America. If proposals sound familiar, it's perhaps because a) they've been rising for years and become a consensus agenda, and b) so many of the authors have been recruited into the Transition and/or new Administration (Podesta, Carol Browner, Greg Craig, Elena Kagan, Dawn Johnsen, Josh Steiner, Van Jones, Jack Lew, Jeanne Lambrew, Christopher Edley, Jr....).
Nor do we think it useful for Democrats to fret whether it would be better for the new President to be more incremental than bold. One reply is -- the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Frankly, where's the political will or majority now to stop an Obama initiative? And where is it written this moment will last? The only two other progressive windows of opportunity this past century --1933 and 1965 -- ended, respectively, with the continuing Depression and WWII, and Watts and the Vietnam War. Going slow risks some unanticipated event that'll snuff out the current rational exhuberance. Combining Obama's 65% popularity, congressional majorities, a supportive public, a winning program -- as well as crisis demanding that Washington rise to the occasion -- why not throw long? Again and again?
President Obama should be guided by the well known ethic, "Make no small plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood." Often wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill, this observation originated with Daniel Hudson Burnham, the noted Chicago architect who designed the 1893 World Exposition and before that helped rebuild the Windy City after its disastrous 1871 fire. So history repeats itself, as another Chicagoan makes big plans to rebuild after Bush's consuming disasters.
1. Reduce poverty a third by 2016. With poverty increasing by five million in the Bush years - and with only Great Britain having less upward income mobility than the U.S -- the country needs to reduce the 37 million indigent (nearly equal to the State of California) by a third by 2016.
So the 44th president should strive to: increase the bi-partisan Earned Income Tax Credit; raise and index the minimum wage and move toward a "living wage"; better link inner-city residents to good jobs in the regional economy; create a national program to help ex-offenders successfully integrate into society; seek a temporary increase in food stamp benefits as part of any stimulus package (since $1 in benefits generates $1.84 in economic activity); make a national commitment to pre-K for all as part of an overall system of developmental care for children; establish a national version of the very successful Harlem Children's Zone, an after-school program that stays with children through their education; and make a renewed effort at bi-partisan, comprehensive immigration reform so one in 20 undocumented workers get out of the shadows by paying taxes and fines and learning English on the path to citizenship.
2. Enhance Democracy to stop special interest vetoes. Pro-democracy reforms often take a back seat -- in campaigns and governance -- to bread-and-butter, life-and-death issues such as economy, war and health. But process is policy, especially if a flawed democracy allows big commercial interests in the legislative and administrative arenas to stymie change.
So the new administration should push for: universal voter regulation (adding up to 50 million to the rolls); matching public funding of congressional elections; protective measures for electronic voting; criminalization of voter suppression techniques; national standards in a Fair Elections Now Act; instant run-off voting; a requirement that all agencies catalogue and post all information in a timely and feasible way; a comprehensive national broadband strategy so all Americans have access to an affordable network of at least 100 megabits per second; national standards to give state redistricting responsibilities to a neutral body -- and ideally establish a "Democracy Czar" within the White House to make sure that all such often-ignored reforms are this time advanced and enacted.
3. Get economic growth rates back to at least 3% of the Kennedy and Clinton years. The world now understands how Bush's tax cutting, deregulation, laissez faire approach has led to slow growth, no growth or near economic collapse. From Enron to e Coli Bacteria to imported Chinese toys and drugs to the subprime mortgage criss, it turns out that laissez wasn't fair.
So even beyond the consensus for a super-sized "stimulus" plan, the new president should do everything feasible to bolster the squeezed middle-class and those seeking to enter it by: pushing for tax reform that increases top rates back to 38 percent while reducing rates on families suffering real income losses this decade; proposing an Innovation Agenda involving Research Fellowships and employment-based permanent immigration visas; including enforceable labor and trade standards in all future trade agreements; experimenting with wage-loss insurance; developing a long-term national surface transportation policy emphasizing light-rail and a national infrastructure bank; expanding one-stop job centers especially given rapidly rising unemployment as places to both obtain training and get placement in available positions; creating a 90 day moratorium on home foreclosures; and restoring enforcement of securities, anti-merger and labor laws at the SEC, Justice Department and Labor Department.
4. Move to a clean, green low-carbon economy. With a scientific unanimity that an increase of even 2Ã‹Å¡ C above pre-industrial levels would be a global disaster, it's surely inadequate for a country with 3 percent of human oil reserves using 25 percent of all energy to focus on drilling and production. Yet while man-made global warming was burning the planet in the past eight years, two oil men in the White House simply fiddled away.
So the new president will be creating a new White House National Energy Council that directs his energy/environment agencies (EPA, DOE, DOT, DOA, DOI) to develop a comprehensive energy plan that a) replaces carbon-based energy with clean, renewable energy and b) promotes policies for millions of green collar jobs. Consistent with that effort, the 44th president should: alter the government's procurement process by giving "energy points" to contract bidders who demonstrate more efficiency and utilize more renewable energy; establish a national Clean Energy Corps to help cities and neglected rural communities retrofit and weatherize homes, business, school houses and public buildings; require the EPA to promote "total appliance efficiency"; increase auto fuel efficiency standards to European levels of 43 mpg by 2020; pursue a joint R&D project with China to develop new carbon capture-and-storage technologies for coal-fired plants; and prepare legislation to create a carbon cap-and-trade bill reducing fossil fuel use and generating $100 billion+ to mitigate negative effects on low-income consumers.
5. Reduce the costs -- and expand the coverage -- of health care. Over 70 million Americans are either uninsured or under-insured, leading to more illness, death and overtaxed emergency rooms. We have both the most expensive and least effective health care system in the industrialized world.
So the new administration should: expand coverage of S-CHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program) to cover all children in need; create a Prevention & Wellness Trust Fund to provide more preventative services for long term cost savings; order the FDA to focus on and reduce obesity and tobacco use by adolescents; invest in health care information technology to avoid medical errors and better spread effective research; investigate the causes of racial disparities in health care and mandate that HHS reduce them; provide better long-term care through assisted living technology to allow home monitoring, as well as more community health workers and home health aides; require the Surgeon General to issue annually a publicly understandable report on the nation's health; and eventually move to a universal healthcare system that's citizen-based, not job-based.
6. Elevate science over politics in federal decision-making. While most presidents will weigh facts which lead to conclusions, Bush deployed the reverse methodology of "Lysenkoism" - conclusions led to "facts." Repeatedly, political appointees from affected industries ignored data because of partisan or religious concerns, especially in the area of climate change.
So the new administration should: issue an executive order to permit federal funding for embryonic stem cell research on all ethically derived stem cell lines; re-establish the White House Office of Science and Technology; make the Research and Development tax credit permanent; and appoint only qualified experts, not industry cronies, to science-related positions.
7. Restore the rule of law and human rights as American values. Constitutional scholar David Cole, challenging friends to name constitutional rights that Bush-Cheney didn't try to sabotage, concluded, "After the right to bear arms and not quarter soldiers, the game will be over." Apparently, when W swore to "faithfully execute the laws," he took it literally.
So a new president -- who's a constitutional law professor to boot -- should: pay a "decent respect for the opinions of mankind" (Jefferson) by closing the prison camp at Guantánamo and assigning to federal civilian courts the task of trying terrorist suspects; unequivocally ban the use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by any U.S. official or contractor; greatly restrict presidential "Signing Statements" to obviously unconstitutional provisions; renounce the blatant politicization of the Justice Department as occurred during Gonzalez's tenure, appoint judges based on merit, not only ideology; repeal the "Global Gag Rule" which prohibits Non- Governmental Organizations that receive federal funding from promoting or performing abortions in other countries; end the "don't-ask-don't tell" policy for military services and ban discrimination in the workplace due to sexual orientation; and create either a congressional or presidential independent, bi-partisan commission to investigate and expose alleged illegality over the past eight years in order to deter future misconduct--a government that can't impeach or prosecute such illegality for political reasons needs to find some way to deter such corruption.
8. Educate children better for the global economy. In an increasingly global economy based on information - and with production techniques duplicatable anywhere - education is the new gold. Unless our children are better educated and more innovative, they and we will lose out in a world of open trade.
So the new administration should: push expanded learning time for all students especially in low-performing and high-poverty school; expand Early Head Start because of the proven success of high-quality pre-school for all; invest particularly in middle schools with high concentrations of low-income students who, in a sense, start dropping out of college in the 7th grade; enact a college tuition tax credit so that middle-class families can write off up to $4,000 per child; create a federal "Grow What Works" fund to identify and document the best practices to be shared; pay more to teachers who assume added responsibilities or work in challenging schools or in a shortage subjects; and create a program that focuses on teacher recruitment, and preparation and professional development since the difference between a good and a bad teacher can be the equivalent of a full year of school.
9. Fight terrorism by working more cooperatively with allies. Terrorism by non-state actors is a palpable threat to American interests that cannot be diminished merely by invading countries or overreacting with apocalyptic, belligerent language. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have grown since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
A new president should utilize the patient deployment of all instruments of national power, emphasizing intelligence, information operations and covert action. Specifically, the U.S. should: repeal the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war and exit Iraq as quickly and as safely as possible; undermine al Qaeda recruitment by developing a counter-narrative for at-risk Muslim youth that impugns its reputation and enhances ours; schedule a major address on terrorism by the new President in a Muslim country; focus on regional diplomacy in the Middle East by engaging other states (Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt) in a conference to coordinate post-war Iraq policy; cooperate better with other intelligence agencies to treat terrorism as in part a police matter; and create a process of engagement between the U.S. and Iran both to discuss common interests and warn Teheran of the consequences of supporting terrorism and a nuclear weapons program.
10. Reduce nuclear proliferation. Because the greatest threat to America - economic threat and national security threat - is the detonation of a nuclear device in a major American city, a top priority for President Obama is to reduce that risk and to announce the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.
So he specifically should: push to develop technologies allowing all air and sea cargo to be inspected by 2012; compile an inventory of all nuclear weapons and materials on earth to determine the best strategy of securing them from terrorist acquisitions; consider unilaterally announcing plans to reduce U.S. forces to 1000 weapons and extending the warning time for the launch of U.S. ballistic missiles, urging Russia to do the same; implement the agreement to end the North Korean nuclear program; prevent the lapse of the U.S. Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START; and maintain the interlocking network of treaties, export controls and security pacts to discourage 183 non-nuclear states from starting a cycle of nuclear weapons competition.
These 10 are top goals now and benchmarks for 2012 or 2016 to measure the success of the new administration.
For America is on the brink of a possible new progressive era due to Obama's big win, big skills, a big crisis, the big popularity of reforms like expanded health care, pre-school programs and green-collar jobs, and a big agenda that's "shovel-ready." But there's one more element necessary for a real realignment to occur: citizens and citizen action.
January 20 is not only about one man who'll alone save us from conservative clutches -- or as one cheeky satirical website puts it, "IthoughtObamawouldgetmelaid.com (admission: this is my adult son's website). No president can go much farther than his constituency wants. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin put it well in The American Prospect: "When you look at the periods of social change, in each instance the president used leadership not only to get the public involved in understanding what the problems were but to create a fervent desire to address these problems in a meaningful way." Recall here the oft-told story how Labor Secretary Francis Perkins was urging a sympathetic FDR to adopt labor reforms, and the politician- in-chief replied -- fine, now make me do it.
Fortunately, the decline of conservatism and advent of Barack Obama is occurring at the same time that there's a new on-line technology capable of harnessing citizen energy nearly cost-free to pressure for a program of Progressive Patriotism, much as the internet, social networks, and ardent bloggers helped lift Obama into office.
Then, if he and his base can credibly claim success by 2012 or 2016 in, say, 7 or more of these 10 goals -- especially health care and democracy -- President Obama will be regarded as a 21st Century FDR and credited with inspiring an era of positive progressive governance.