What Obama can get done his second term

January 22, 2013

President Obama on Monday delivered a second inaugural address that stood out for its specificity when it comes to the agenda items the president would like to achieve over the next four years.

So, what are the chances of success for those proposals? Here’s a look at five of the main agenda items he mentioned, along with the current state of play.

1) Bring down deficits and the cost of health care: “We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”

Reducing annual deficits is an agenda item Obama has long mentioned, but one on which he and congressional Republicans have been able to work toward only in a piecemeal approach. While the government shutdown debates and debt-ceiling battle of 2011 brought about some deficit reduction, the 2012 fiscal cliff deal will result in deficits totaling more than $4 trillion over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

If the White House is keen on bringing down deficits, Obama and congressional Republicans will need to come to agreement on a "grand bargain" – a prospect that doesn’t seem likely given the failure of past negotiations between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

On bringing down health-care costs, the White House has maintained that the Affordable Care Act will reduce the average family’s annual premium by as much as $2,500. But those savings don’t look likely to be fully realized until well after Obama’s second term is over. Meantime, there remains plenty of uncertainty over whether the recent slowdown in the growth of health-care spending is here to stay.

2) Protect federal entitlement programs: “The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us.”

Ultimately, Obama’s vow to preserve these programs in their current state is closely entwined with the negotiations over the federal debt. Any grand bargain is likely to include changes to these programs – something on which Obama has already received strong pushback from the Democratic base.

If the gridlock on Capitol Hill continues, it could be that the status quo on these programs prevails throughout Obama’s second term, but their long-term solvency remains an issue for future presidents and Congresses to tackle. As the most recent trustee report made clear, the long-term outlook for Medicare and Social Security isn’t good. And reactions by the states to the administration’s Medicaid expansion have expectedly split along partisan lines.

3) Combat climate change: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

If Obama is to act on climate change – and both his Election Night speech and his inaugural address suggest that he plans to – the road ahead will likely run through the White House rather than Congress, given the failure of the last big congressional effort on the issue, the 2010 cap-and-trade bill.

The Obama administration has several tools at its disposal for tightening emissions rules and boosting energy efficiency. The president has yet to lay out his plans in detail, however, and press secretary Jay Carney declined at Tuesday’s daily briefing to elaborate, telling reporters only that the issue remains “among (Obama’s) top priorities.”

“While it’s clear that bipartisan opposition to legislative action remains a reality, the president’s position remains the same as it was in the first term,” Carney said.

There’s also the issue of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, now back in the spotlight with Tuesday’s news that Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) approves of the pipeline route through the state. Carney on Tuesday deferred to the State Department, which is conducting an assessment of the proposed route.

4) Ensure equal rights for gay Americans: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.”

The next substantive step on gay rights will likely come not from the White House but rather from the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule in late March on the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as between one man and one woman, and on California’s Proposition 8, which had banned same-sex marriage in the state until a lower court overturned it last year.

Asked about the issue of gay rights, Carney on Tuesday told reporters that Obama “believes that individuals who love each other should not be barred from marriage” and that the issue of marriage should be left up to the states.

“We have taken positions on various efforts to restrict the rights of Americans, which he generally thinks is a bad idea,” Carney said.

5) Enact immigration reform: “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”

Carney said Tuesday that Obama expects to take action on immigration reform “early in his second term, and he will keep that commitment.” The issue is another one that Obama mentioned prominently in both his inauguration speech and in his Election Night address.

Like the issue of gun control, however (not to mention most matters on which the White House intends to work together with Congress), a piece-by-piece approach rather than a comprehensive measure is the likely outcome given the polarization on Capitol Hill.

Among the steps most likely to achieve bipartisan support is the boosting of the number of visas granted to highly-skilled workers. It appears that finding agreement on a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally – something on which the White House has already taken executive action with its move last year to block the deportations of some young illegal immigrants – could be a steeper climb.

In addition to the five items above, Obama also mentioned a host of other policy specifics in his inaugural address, including protecting voting rights and ensuring equal pay for equal work.

Notably, he mentioned the need to keep “all our children ... cared for and cherished and always safe from harm,” a nod to the White House’s push for tighter restrictions on firearms in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings.

He did not mention the word “gun” in his speech, but the lobbying effort that began with Obama’s news conference last week and continued with Vice President Biden’s address to the U.S. Conference of Mayors suggests that the gun control issue remains at the top of the White House’s agenda. Progress on that – like many of the other components of the president’s policy wish list – is likely to comprise a mix of executive actions and legislative maneuvering.

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