Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012 | 2 a.m.
As he was thanking the country for re-electing him Tuesday night, President Barack Obama also hinted at what sounded like the framework of an agenda for the next four years.
“In the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together,” Obama said. “Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil. We’ve got more work to do.”
The nods amount to the policy to-do list Obama did not tackle during his first term. But even after a re-election that gave him some breathing room — Obamacare is safe now — and a new infusion of political capital, Obama will find himself limited: by the whims of Congress, the urgency of a fiscal crisis and the peculiarities of a calendar that dogs every president during his second term.
“I would say they have to do these things within the first six months,” UNLV professor David Damore said. “You lose your window after that. Then everybody starts gearing up for the midterms.”
That means the president, even coming off a strong win, will have to prioritize.
In Obama’s victory speech and through the election, the unfinished policy items that emerged as paramount are immigration, energy, education and tax reform.
But his agenda for the first three months of the new term is almost pre-scripted. The country is coming up hard on a double-deadline: Come the end of the year, long-standing tax cuts expire and deep-tissue cuts are scheduled to go into effect in all agencies of the government, especially the defense department.
Congress already built itself a partial cushion to the coming economic blow, in the form of a budget that carries the government through the end of March, thereby delaying at least the cuts that were scheduled to strike in the new year. But that also may serve as an invitation for Congress to leave the heavy lifting of tax reform and budget restructuring until after the lame duck.
Scholars say that’s no excuse for the president not to try to rack up some high-profile policy accomplishments in the meantime.
“You have to be able to policy multitask,” UNR political science professor Eric Herzik said. “Think about it: If the U.S. were attacked or had some foreign policy problem, you can’t say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, we’ll get to that once we deal with the fiscal cliff.’”
One item from Obama’s agenda already seems to be gaining momentum, in just the first few days after the election: immigration.
Democrats have been hinting that 2013 might be the year for immigration reform, and last week, Sen. Harry Reid told reporters that “it’s very, very high on my list” of priorities for the new year.
But the real push is coming from Republicans.
Republicans had thought they could steal away Hispanic support from Obama in the 2012 election and bet much of their effort on pointing out how Obama had promised to tackle immigration reform in his first year but hadn’t.
But after being routed in the Hispanic community, which went for Obama in record-setting numbers and turnout, Republican leaders are scrambling to declare themselves allied with the president in their desire to tackle immigration reform.
“A comprehensive approach is long overdue,” House Speaker John Boehner, the country’s top Republican, told ABC News in an interview that aired Thursday. “I’m confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.”
Boehner’s statement, in itself, is no guarantee of an accord, as the oft-used term “comprehensive immigration reform” means different things to different people.
But many Republicans are now openly arguing that if they want to reach the fast-growing bloc of Hispanic voters, they have to amend their message to include a progressive approach to immigration.
“I, for one, favor the Dream Act,” said Bob List, who headed up Team Nevada, the new Nevada organization that allied itself with the Republican National Committee to drive the Republican effort during the 2012 election. “Our policy on immigration has just been way too harsh. ... These are hard-working people who are looking for a better life. We have a lot in common with them and we need to rethink some of the positions we’re taking.”
“I hope that comprehensive immigration reform gets done, and I hope the Republicans drive that issue and really put forward an immigration policy that can help us get Hispanic votes back there in full,” said Robert Uithoven, a Nevada Republican strategist.
Not every item on Obama’s agenda, however, seems as easy to tackle as an immigration reform bill.
Obama has spent considerable effort talking up the merits of having an “all of the above” national energy policy that invests intensely in the country’s natural gas production and renewable energy sector — reflected in his victory speech by the mention of “freeing ourselves from foreign oil.”
Republicans also want to tackle energy, and also favor an “all-of-the-above” approach. But their line on energy has coalesced around developing the Keystone pipeline, an oil route that would port fuel from the Canadian shale sands to the processing plants in the Gulf of Mexico.
Outside of Washington, the chasm between the two parties is far more vast. Liberal activists want to see the president attack not just the nation’s energy policies, but specifically focus on climate change, perhaps even resurrecting the cap-and-trade approach to regulating carbon emissions.
But the phrase “cap-and-trade” makes conservatives see almost as much red as the name Nancy Pelosi. Plus, large swaths of the country — including some longtime Democrats — are beginning to doubt that there’s any real payoff to renewable energy investments.
“It’s a lot of hocus-pocus,” said Nick Taylor, 42, a lifelong Las Vegas Democrat and single father of seven who voted for Romney. He used to have a job constructing solar panels with Bombard Electric. “We all made a lot of money doing it, but now the systems don’t work. ... Those are garbage now.”
That’s left many lawmakers thinking the status quo may be better than the compromise.
“Energy — that just divides the parties so much, and it’s something that the public isn’t really sold on,” Damore said, explaining that despite the arched rhetoric on both sides, the feeling of urgency is still too weak to push the parties to work something out. “Clean energy was sold as job creation, and now that doesn’t seem to have happened .. and it's not like the oil and gas industry is going anywhere.”
There’s a similar lack of urgency surrounding education.
Elementary and secondary education programs are overdue for reauthorization, and workforce re-education initiatives continue to demand congressional attention. But when the president moved into the void with the Education Department-driven Race to the Top programs and workforce retraining programs run through the Labor Department, it took most of the public pressure off of Congress to act.
“Obama made some pretty good headway on education, so that’s going to happen, whether or not they act,” Damore said.
In many ways, how well Obama is able to fashion urgency around other issues depends on how well he emerges from the organically crucial fights — namely, tax and budget reform — that he confronts as soon as Congress returns to Washington next week.
Republicans have argued the way to avoid that fiscal cliff is to extend the tax cuts and make different cuts to the budget that avoid military spending altogether. Democrats, meanwhile, have argued the country cannot sustain more cuts without bringing in increased revenues to offset them and advocate finding those revenues in part by letting tax rates on the wealthiest Americans rise. On Friday, Obama said he would reject any compromise that didn’t allow tax rates on top incomes to rise.
“There was a message sent to us by the American people based on the campaign, and that is people making all this money have to contribute a little bit more,” Reid said in an election post-mortem press conference Wednesday. “In all the exit polling, in all the polling we’ve done, the vast majority of the American people support that, including rich people.”
Republicans aren’t exactly sounding as if they agree.
“The American people this week didn’t give us a mandate to simply do the simple thing. They gave us a mandate to work together to do the best thing for our country,” Boehner said in his Wednesday speech. “We’re willing to accept some additional revenues via tax reform ... but a balanced approach isn’t balanced if it means higher taxes on small businesses.”
Resolving that standoff is Congress’ most daunting, and pressing, challenge.
But if Democrats and Obama “win” this argument like they did the election, it sets the president up in a much stronger position to spread his sights to other policy fights.
“Taxes — that’s always been the issue Republicans die for. So if they are seen as caving on that, does that give Obama momentum on other things?” Damore said. “Probably so.”