4:43 AM CST, January 24, 2013
Many have noted the unabashed liberalness of Obama’s second inauguration speech, while conservatives are sending death threats to poor John Dickerson of Slate for suggesting that Obama must now go to war with Republicans if he wants any hope of advancing an ambitious second term agenda that supposedly includes gun control, climate change, and immigration reform.
The fundamental problem being that the House Republicans have no interest in any of these issues and the Democrats do not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate anyway. As in the second half of Obama’s first term, the Republicans wield total veto power over his agenda. Dickerson correctly pointed out that in order to crack this nut, Obama will have to drive a wedge somewhere into the Republican Party. There are opportunities on several issues:
Gun control: I view gun control measures as the least likely prospect for becoming law, because to vote along with the Democrats on anything would open up any Republican to a pretty easy primary challenge. Still, by putting forward a bill with the most common-sense, popular provisions (universal background checks, assault weapons ban), Obama can marginalize his opposition as a bunch a fringe-clinging loons. Unlike with climate change or immigration policy, winning the gun argument is not as much about what passes as it is about winning the optics war that the NRA has so successfully exploited all these years. It’s about turning that “A” rating from the NRA into a political liability for any conservative in a swing district. Even if Obama can only manage to force Republicans into an ugly refusal to take a vote on a bill, it will be exclusively to his political advantage.
Marriage equality: Ah, I didn’t mention this above and Obama certainly has no plans to introduce any legislation, but we’ve passed the tipping point with this wedge issue. His inauguration was breathtakingly bold in its affirmation of full equality for gays and lesbians, which is in and of itself a watershed event. The Supreme Court will take up DOMA and California’s Prop 8 this year, numerous states are moving forward with legislation that would allow gays and lesbians to marry, and the politicians talking about marriage being between a man and a woman are in hiding. Forcing Republicans to come out and make anti-marriage equality arguments is now a political winner and will begin to drive a wedge between those candidates who want to win votes in rural Alabama and those who want to be president or senator of a moderate-to-liberal state.
Immigration reform: This is Obama’s best chance for victory. The Republican establishment understands that they cannot continue to get savaged in the Hispanic vote and expect to win a presidential election. They need immigration reform more than the Democrats to dispel the perception (well, reality) that their party harbors a bunch of xenophobic rednecks. Senator Marco Rubio is trying to get out ahead by proposing his own immigration plan, which has so far been kinda, sorta endorsed by the likes of Paul Ryan and Bill O’Reilly. The hilarious part here is that the centerpiece of the Rubio plan (essentially a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers living in the United States) is exactly the Obama plan from 2009. It’s also the Bush-Kennedy plan from 2007 that got rode out of town as “amnesty.” Call it the Rubio Plan all you want, at the end of the day it’s the bill Obama proposed, and if he signs the Rubio Immigration Reform and Republicans Are All Super Nice and Love Mexicans Act of 2013, it will constitute a major legislative victory for the president.
Climate change: There is virtually no chance that the Republican caucus will pass legislation to deal with the most dire threat human civilization has ever faced. But then again, Obama doesn’t need them. There are so many executive actions he can take, there’s every chance the U.S. will hit the emissions targets Obama promised at the failed Copenhagen conference of 2009.
Most importantly, under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants (Obama's first-term EPA regs have already taken care of future coal plants). Now for some wonky shit: the reason that Democrats, economists, environmentalists, etc. have not favored the regulatory approach is because it’s difficult. Some coal-burning states like Ohio have a ton of economic activity that relies on carbon emissions, while other states do not. Any regulation that’s too harsh and you’re essentially bludgeoning the Midwest. Any regulation that’s too lenient and there’s not really a point. This is why everyone who’s serious prefers some version of carbon-pricing whether it’s cap-and-trade or a straight tax.
However, the National Resources Defense Council recently debuted what could be a game-changing idea. The basic premise is to set a slowly lowering cap for emissions separately for each state, based on their current emissions. The EPA would provide no guidance on how to hit emissions targets; that would be between the state government and the private sector. Maybe in Ohio it makes more sense to build more natural gas plants. Maybe in Iowa, more wind farms would do the trick. The advantage is that it allows for flexible solutions without a top-down directive. Sure, politicians in both parties will throw a shit fit, but it will be the most meaningful environmental action in our history. Depending on how fast solar and wind continues to scale-up, it could spur a genuine revolution in American energy with nothing but positive feedback loops for the rest of the world. If properly implemented and executed, it could be the most important action taken during the Obama presidency.
With all this in mind, Barack Obama's second inaugural address, while less heralded than 2008, may nevertheless be the one he will be remembered for.
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