If I were advising the White House now, I would encourage President Obama to take advantage of the time remaining before the new GOP-dominated Congress assumes office to change the subject in a big way. The president should undertake a series of major executive actions on issues that congressional Republicans have failed to act on and seem unlikely ever to pass.
This cannot be done quietly. Indeed, polarization—including a massive outcry from the wing-nut section of the GOP—can be helpful if the president chooses the right issues. Obama should be very visible, delivering high-profile speeches and coordinating with grassroots activists.
Here are a few suggestions:
Begin serious immigration reform. In your first press conference after the elections, Mr. President, you said you would take executive action on immigration if the Republicans didn’t give you a bill you could sign.
Don’t wait for the new Congress; instead, you should immediately announce a major reduction in deportations. Do it in a high-profile appearance at the Texas or Arizona border, making appearances with some of the girls and boys who have fled to the United States to escape the appalling violence and poverty of their lives in Honduras and Guatemala.
Let the right wing come unglued, and don’t back down when Steve King, Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin start calling for your impeachment. If the crazies threaten impeachment over perfectly legal executive actions, it will turn off independents and moderates and leave most of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates twisting in the wind. (Remember, the foolish, overwrought impeachment assault on Bill Clinton helped clarify to most Americans that the GOP was the big problem in Washington.)
Create a climate legacy. Cancel the Keystone XL pipeline before the right wing can draw a breath after your immigration actions. Then, Mr. President, elevate climate change as an issue, the way you took on healthcare reform.
Meet with China and India on climate issues before the next round of global climate talks. Set aside for preservation big chunks of public land and territorial waters, holding photo ops in spectacular natural settings as you do so—very few executive actions are so popular with most of the public.
Host a national teach-in with climate scientists, using it to destroy the bogus arguments of corporate-funded climate-change denialism. Pull together a meeting of coastal mayors to talk about the steps we must take to prepare for the coming superstorms. This is not only necessary; it’s a good way to raise the issue of our dangerously decaying infrastructure.
No previous leaders have met the challenge of global warming, which affects both national and world security. If you make it a part of the Obama legacy, future generations will thank you.
Make normalization of relations with Cuba inevitable. Current law prevents a president from fully normalizing relations with Cuba, but executive actions can weaken the embargo and increase US prestige all over Latin America.
Send Attorney General Eric Holder to Havana to work out the details. Even better, Mr. President, if you take these executive actions now, before the entire hemisphere meets at the Summit of the Americas in Panama this coming April, it will enhance your reputation—and that of the United States—across Latin America.
Use changing attitudes on marijuana to end the “war on drugs.” Reclassify marijuana by removing it from the severely restricted Schedule I category, which also includes heroin. Commute the sentences of nonviolent pot prisoners (a disproportionate number of them young African-Americans).
Better yet, use your executive power to reform our racist and costly criminal-injustice system. Appoint a blue-ribbon commission on drug-law and criminal-justice reform, with a mandate to report back quickly on marijuana legalization and how to curb police brutality and racial profiling, harsh sentencing policies, and the militarization of police departments across the nation.
Nominate Tom Harkin to the Federal Reserve Board. In our hyperfinancialized economy, the Fed needs members who are not just economists but broad-minded civic leaders, as has been the case at various times in the institution’s history.
Issue a “good jobs” executive order. In the proud tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, this would reward companies that pay workers a living wage, allow them a voice at the workplace without having to go on strike, adhere to federal safety and fair-labor standards, and limit the pay of chief executives to a reasonable ratio of the employee average.
Nominate solid progressives to fill judicial vacancies. And if they’re not approved, turn it into a huge throw-down fight with obstinate Republicans. Given the public’s current poor opinion of the Citizens United–tainted Supreme Court, judges could become one of the big issues of the 2016 campaign.
Be the change you want to see, Mr. President! Sí, se puede!
Also in this section on the election and after…
John Nichols: “Democrats: The Party of Pablum”
Ari Berman: “Shrinking the Vote”
George Zornick: “The GOP Senate: Worry!”
William Greider: “How the Democratic Party Lost Its Soul”