News & Politics

What Obama's Next Steps Should Be on Health Care, Transportation, Iraq and More

Sara Robinson, Margy Waller, David Morris, J. Goodrich, Geoff Millard and Maude Barlow on where Obama should go from here.
AlterNet asked dozens of writers, experts and activists on key issues to write about where the country needs to go, and the priorities for Barack Obama's early days in office. The following is the second in a series of articles we'll be running this week. You can find the first article here.

Sara Robinson, fellow, Campaign for America's Future

The most important thing for incoming Obama policy makers to remember right now is that, while Obamacare is a fine step in the right direction, they shouldn't be shy about using the words "single payer." (Or, put it another way: Medicare for all.) The K Street lobbyists for the insurance and pharmaceutical companies may scream bloody murder whenever the idea is floated, but the polls over the past several years have shown irrefutably that the American public -- including a majority of Republicans -- is behind this idea at least 2 to 1. That's a lot of political cover, and they should take full advantage of it to do the right thing.

It's also an absolutely necessary thing. American workers are competing with European and Canadian workers who have the choice to go back to school, start a small business, take time off and travel, stay home with their kids for a few years, fully recuperate from a disabling condition, or tell their boss where they can stick it without the threat of losing their insurance. Having guaranteed health care not only makes these workers physically healthier and extends their productive years; it also increases these countries' social and economic capital by enabling them to become better skilled, better traveled, more entrepreneurial and more personally fulfilled. American workers simply can't compete on an equal footing in a tight global labor market until they have equal access to care.

It's also the right thing to do economically. A new Harvard Law School study found that more than half of the mortgage defaults underlying the subprime meltdown were triggered by overwhelming medical bills or job loss due to disability. It's probably not an overstatement to say that much of America's current financial distress is the direct product of our health care crisis. (It's ironic that the same financial wizards who so boldly proclaimed that we were all on our own -- or should be -- are now losing everything because they simply didn't notice how interconnected these issues are. If they'd shared just enough of their loot to ensure that Americans had decent health care, they'd still be Masters of the Universe. They didn't. So we don't. So they aren't. Who says there's no such thing as karma?)

Most importantly: It's the best thing an incoming Obama administration can do to usher in a new and enduring progressive era. Giving every American access to health care will do more to undercut the entire conservative worldview and replace it with a new progressive political philosophy than anything else you can name. Once people realize that government can do this much good for this many people, it will restore our faith in the power of democracy -- and when that happens, all manner of now-impossible things will suddenly become possible.


Margy Waller, executive director, The Mobility Agenda

The next president should create an office of social inclusion, rather than respond to calls for establishing the limited national goal of reducing poverty.

The new president should use the goodwill accorded a new administration to focus on setting a new and higher standard. A better goal goes well beyond income deprivation, beyond even a standard of "making ends meet."

Unless we want to limit policy solutions at the outset, the president should focus instead on measuring our progress as an inclusive nation. For example, every European Union country has a plan for "social inclusion," a multidimensional concept incorporating notions of adequate relative income, neighborhood quality, access to arts, education, health care, participation in civic events, housing, pensions and other factors.

Focusing on poverty divides society into "us" and "them," violating the big idea that we are all in this together. Rather than arguing to fix the economy for a distinct class -- the poor -- our goal should be an economy that works for all of us.

Eliminating poverty sets the bar too low and, as a national goal, it simply will not work to achieve our shared hopes for a strong nation.


David Morris, co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

When it comes to transportation, Obama and Congress could be writing the rules that guide a total investment of as much as $150 billion. What should their priorities be?

1. Reduce the need for physical transportation. The less we travel, the more money we save, the stronger the economy becomes. One element will be a dramatic expansion in low-cost, high-speed communications networks. Where transportation is necessary, try to reduce the distance traveled. The federal government can do this in a number of ways. For example, it should change existing policy and not close any rural post office if the cost of additional travel by the post office's users is greater than the subsidy required to keep it open. And adopt a mileage tax instead of a gasoline tax.

2. Enhance the mobility of the poor, the disabled and the car-less. That means emphasizing low-cost mass transit and dial-a-ride programs. And given that this spending will be part of an initiative to boost employment, the federal government should end its policy of favoring capital-intensive over labor-intensive mass transit systems.

3. Invest in repairing existing structures and roads. This includes patching up public schools, reinforcing old bridges and repairing existing roads for safety reasons. Spending on new roads should be allowed in highly unusual circumstances.

4. Use subsidies to car companies to accelerate a non-oil future. Two-thirds of our oil is used for transportation. We now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dramatically reduce our use of oil for transportation. The $25 billion loan package for cars was originally authorized in the 2007 energy bill to assist car companies to meet the mandated 40 percent increase in the fuel efficiency of their new vehicles by 2020. Funds were appropriated as part of the bailout package. Vehicles built with these loans should be required to achieve a 40 percent minimum increase in fuel efficiency plus have the ability of traveling at least 2 miles solely on electricity with any backup engine capable of being fueled by renewable energy. That would force all new vehicles produced with this financing to be hybrids. Coupled with the new tax credit of up to $7,500 per electrified car, this requirement could dramatically accelerate our shift toward a non-oil, renewable-fueled transportation system.


J. Goodrich, economist, freelance writer

What should President Obama do about reproductive rights and gender-related policies in the first 100 days of his rule? He should declare a quick cease-fire in George Bush's war against women and begin to undo some of the damage that war has caused. Three quick steps can all be taken during the first 100 days:

1. Get rid of the Global Gag Rule. This rule restricts foreign recipients of U.S. aid, often the sole providers of reproductive health care to poor women in rural areas, from spending their own funds on legal abortions, from giving accurate medical advice and from referring patients for abortions carried out elsewhere. George Bush instituted the Global Gag Rule on his first day in office. It would be nice if Barack Obama would repeal it during his first day in office. The Global Gag Rulecosts lives.

2. Make the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice a new set of sharp dentures. The Bush administration defanged this division by staffing it with foes of civil rights and by directing it to focus on the enforcement of religious rights. If nobody enforces the laws against sex discrimination at work and at school, those laws are meaningless.

3. "Remember the ladies." This is what Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, in the context of women's suffrage. President Obama should "remember the ladies" while selecting members of his Cabinet and while considering other important appointments.


Geoff Millard, D.C. chapter president, National Board of Directors, Iraq Veterans Against the War

The demands of IVAW don't change from politician to politician. We demand immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces from Iraq, we demand full benefits for veterans, and we demand reparations for the Iraqi people. That's what we've been demanding for more than four years, and that's what we are demanding on Jan. 20.

Our job with an Obama presidency will be to make sure that he lives up to all of the hype. To make sure that he does things like end the war, to make sure that he does things like take care of veterans. He's talked a good game. Now we need to make sure he does what he has said he will do. It's our job as people to make sure we hold his feet to the fire.


Maude Barlow, chair of the board of Food and Water Watch and a recent appointee as the Senior Advisor on Water to the President of the UN General Assembly

President Obama must become the first to sound the alarm about the global water crisis and the first to offer solutions. Our pollution, mismanagement and displacement of water from where it is needed for the healthy functioning of ecosystems and the hydrologic cycle is a major cause of global climate change and the major cause of death in the global South. President Obama must declare that the global water crisis represents a major ecological threat to our human survival and help lead an international effort to find solutions. In this he could join with the new president of the UN General Assembly, Father Miguel d'Escoto, who has pledged to take the issue of the right to water into the heart of the United Nations.

At home, President Obama has his work cut out for him. Under President Bush, federal funding for municipal infrastructure projects has all but dried up. Leaky 100-year-old pipes do an enormous amount of damage across the United States every day, polluting waterways and threatening public water supplies. Food and Water Watch is calling for a federal Clean Water Trust Fund to provide the billions of dollars needed to upgrade these decaying structures and protect America's water legacy for future generations. As well, cuts made to clean water programs under the Bush administration must be restored, and a major cleanup of polluted water must be undertaken. Let's hope that Barack Obama becomes our first environmental president and puts the nation's precious water heritage front and center in his plan.