Yes, He Can: Twenty Ways Obama Can Use Executive Power to Push a Progressive Agenda
Create a National Development Bank
The president often invokes the need to invest in “nation building at home.” As he told a crowd in Virginia on the campaign trail last summer: “Let’s rebuild our roads and our bridges…. Let’s build broadband lines and high-speed rail. Let’s expand our ports and improve our airports. That’s what’s going to keep us at the cutting edge of a twenty-first-century economy. And we’ve got tens of thousands of construction workers ready to be put back to work.” To this end, a National Development Bank could provide the funding for such ambitious projects—and serve as a source of funding for reconstruction projects following Sandy-scale natural disasters.
In his inaugural speech, the president vowed to engage with other countries so as to "lift suspicion and fear." He should reach out to forge a more sane and sensible relationship with Cuba.
Nation readers provided good ideas—and a bit of wariness—when asked how Obamas should use his presidential authority.
Implement ‘High Road’ Contracting
In fiscal year 2009, according to the GAO, the government awarded more than $6 billion in contracts to companies that had violated federal labor laws. Obama should instruct the Labor Department to implement a policy of rewarding and punishing potential contractors based on their labor, environmental and other records. In the absence of a congressional minimum-wage increase, Obama could mandate living-wage standards for federal contractors as well.
Grant Wage and Overtime Protections to Homecare Workers
In December 2011, as part of his “We Can’t Wait” initiative, Obama promised to extend federal minimum wage and overtime protections to homecare workers. “One year later, we are still waiting,” a number of homecare workers wrote to the president in December. According to the National Employment Law Project, “the long-delayed rules change would close a loophole—known as the companionship exemption—that allows most of the nation’s 2.5 million homecare workers to be shut out from basic minimum wage and overtime protections. The rules change would provide a rapidly growing workforce with the same basic wage guarantees that other workers have relied on for decades.”
Challenge the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Of the president’s twenty-three executive actions addressing gun violence—several of which were quite important—one was particularly troubling: his promise to “help schools hire more resource officers,” a euphemism for putting more police in schools. This will only accelerate what advocates call the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a phenomenon so catastrophic that the Senate held its first hearing on how to address it just two days before the Newtown massacre. Before following through on this action, the president should direct the Justice Department to draw up a racial impact statement to analyze how such a policy might disproportionately affect children of color, and take steps to ensure that it does not.
Pardon Prisoners and Commute Unjust Sentences
As Sasha Abramsky recently wrote in our pages, President Obama has been stingy in exercising his considerable pardon power, even for prisoners serving clearly unjust sentences. The New York Times has reported that he has granted a pardon for one out of every fifty applicants, “compared with 1 out of 33 for George W. Bush, 1 of 8 for Bill Clinton and 1 of 3 for Ronald Reagan”—and this despite the scores of federal nonviolent drug offenders ensnared by the drug war. Obama should not only hand down pardons to men and women serving time disproportionate to their crimes; he should also order the Federal Bureau of Prisons to regularly send the White House names of potential candidates for commutations and early release.
Tell the Justice Department to Focus on High-Level Offenses
To prevent such miscarriages of justice, Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project suggests that “the president and/or attorney general could issue a policy recommendation asking United States attorneys to prosecute only high-level cases or those in which there is a clear federal interest.” This could include ordering the DEA to cease its raids on medical marijuana growers, which result in outrageous miscarriages of justice—as in the case of Chris Williams, arrested in Montana for growing then-legal medical marijuana, who at one point was facing more than eighty years in prison.