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The President Asked Us to Push Him: Here's a To-Do List to Get Us Started

Posted: 11/14/2012 12:09 pm

Much of the discussion since the election has focused on what's wrong with Republicans -- why they misread the data, how they'll regroup and how the long-range demographics are increasingly against them. But more pressing in the immediate term is the fact that a new presidential term starts on January 21st with our country facing a myriad of urgent problems. So how will President Obama's second term be different? It seems pretty clear that even though the president was reelected, this election was not a mandate for maintaining the status quo. The people voted to reelect the incumbent, but at the same time, they voted for change.

The president campaigned on the idea of letting him finish the job. And there's certainly a lot of job to finish -- and a lot of unfulfilled potential. The president still has the opportunity to be a transformational one. Or, more accurately, he has the potential to have a transformational presidency -- because, as he has said again and again, bringing about the changes we need is going to require the active participation of all of us. It's a theme he laid out in his acceptance speech at this year's Democratic National Convention. Here he was in Charlotte:

"...the path I'm offering... will require common effort, shared responsibility... Help me recruit 100,000 math and science teachers in the next ten years...Help give two million workers the chance to learn skills at their community college that will lead directly to a job. Help us work with colleges and universities to cut in half the growth of tuition costs over the next ten years. We can meet that goal together... So you see, the election four years ago wasn't about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens -- you were the change... Only you have the power to move us forward."

And he returned to the same theme on Election Night.

One way to interpret these exhortations is as an echo of FDR's response to a group of labor leaders pushing for reform: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it." And we've seen this kind of pressure work over the last few months. As White House policy lagged behind public sentiment, gay rights groups put pressure on the administration to get rid of Don't Ask Don't Tell and support (or at least not come out against) gay marriage. The pressure worked. Immigration reform and Latino advocates also pressured the administration, which in June issued an executive order temporarily suspending deportations for one million undocumented children and young people. (And of course, the need to court Latino voters certainly helped.)

Silence or unconditional backing by supporters would not have led to these policy changes -- changes that, by the way, helped Obama's reelection effort. The president has given us the roadmap. He hasn't said, "follow me." He has effectively said, "push me."

At his one-man show last weekend in New York, Bill Maher chided progressives who were so disappointed in Obama they wanted to sit out the election. "This is like saying there are problems with our babysitter, so we're going to put the children out in the middle of the road." Well, progressives didn't sit out the election -- and we're keeping the babysitter for four more years. Our task is to help the babysitter be as good as possible.

During the campaign, even constructive criticism of the administration was seen by some Democrats as simply strengthening the other side. Well, whether you agree with this line of reasoning or not -- and I certainly don't -- it is now moot. The election is over. Questioning Obama's policies and speaking up is not going to result in a Romney presidency. But it can help make the Obama presidency the transformational one it still has the potential to be.

In fact, there are several ongoing issues that, if it were President Bush and not President Obama calling the shots in the Oval Office, would likely have various parts of the Democratic coalition up in arms. Now that there's no danger of the office getting a new occupant, there is absolutely no excuse for not doing as the president himself has demanded of us -- fulfilling our obligations as citizens and engaging in the "hard and necessary work of self-government." Here's just a partial list of issues:

Foreclosures

To deal with the housing crisis, in 2009, the president announced the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) with much fanfare. Given a $50 billion budget, the program was to help up to 9 million people escape foreclosure by reducing their mortgage payments. As of June 2012, only 2.3 million had been helped, and only $4 billion of the $50 billion allocated has been spent. Meanwhile, around 20 percent of all U.S. mortgages are still underwater, with 13 million homeowners owing a total of $650 billion more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. As a result, millions of citizens are still facing foreclosure.

HAMP has clearly been inadequate. As ProPublica's Paul Kiel wrote, "the government provided little oversight and administered no sanctions, servicers reviewed 2.7 million modification applications and denied two-thirds of them." The Treasury Department "coddled servicers that weren't complying with the programs rules." Or, as HuffPost's Ben Hallman puts it, "the decision to essentially turn over administration of the programs to understaffed and undermotivated mortgage companies was a tactical disaster."

Much of the criticism has focused on the acting head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Edward DeMarco, who opposes principal reductions and has become a human roadblock to reform. He needs to be removed by the president as soon as possible in his second term. However, some question the administration's change of heart on principal reductions and believe that Secretary Geithner's newfound embrace of the policy is, as former TARP inspector general Neil Barofsky says, "political posturing."

The economy is not going to take off until the housing crisis is finally -- and seriously -- addressed.

Drones

Last Wednesday morning, as tens of millions of Americans were celebrating the election results, people in a Yemeni village were sifting through the rubble of what seems to have been another drone attack. Were any civilians killed along with militants? And were the supposed militants really militants? We don't really know because the administration hardly acknowledges the existence of the drone program. But as HuffPost's Josh Hersh writes, "As it stands now, the Obama administration, which vastly stepped up the use of drones and targeted killings over the past four years, has done little to assuage the concerns of outsiders about the program's legality or utility."

As Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia, puts it: "It's very unclear what the United States is actually doing in Yemen other than they carry out bombings and people on the ground are dying. Who's dying, whether or not they're actually Al Qaeda -- we just don't know."

And as Micah Zenko, a drone expert at the Council on Foreign Relations says, the administration's legal framework for deciding who dies (called a "disposition matrix") essentially comes down to "trust us."

In fact, President Obama has stepped up the use of drones during his first term, and allowing him to go through a second term with the policy unchallenged will have serious consequences. "Both the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations have really dropped the ball on creating a legal and ethical framework," says Johnsen. "That's going to be a real problem for future administrations for years to come." It's also going to make us far less safe in the years to come, as it has been inflaming anti-American passions and playing into our enemies' hands.

A study by researchers at NYU and Stanford revealed what some of those consequences are for those living, and dying, under the current policy. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that, between 2004 and 2012, up to 881 civilians were killed by drones, including 176 children. The number of high-level targets killed as a percentage of total deaths is estimated to be around 2 percent.

The study's authors write:

"Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.... Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school."

This is a beyond left and right issue. Conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru points out that the "morality of the policy" deserves much more debate. "Liberal groups that might be inclined to protest the policy have been quiet because Obama put it in place," he writes. "The lack of debate about our reliance on drones is a shame, because there are both practical and moral objections to it."

There is no shortage of objections being raised internationally. Of 20 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, 17 had majorities that disapproved of how the U.S. is using drones. And in September Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani, when asked why Pakistan was turning anti-American, replied simply: "Drones."

And beyond the morality, there is the question of practicality. "We've had nearly three years of strikes, and in those three years, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula went from a group of 200-300 individuals to a group that most estimate is over 1,000," says Johnson. "So the organization has at least tripled in size."

Unfortunately, there seems to be as little debate about the policy inside the White House as outside. "There were a couple of dissenters who had a seat at the table," says the Washington Post's Greg Miller. " They lost those seats at the table."

Those seats need to be filled. If not by the White House, then by the public.

Prisons

"Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today -- perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850," writes the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik in a must-read piece. "In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system -- in prison, on probation, or on parole -- than were in slavery then."

As Gopnik notes, the six million people under "correctional supervision" in America are more than there were in the height of the Gulag system under Stalin. Since 1980, the percentage of Americans behind bars has more than tripled. "No other country even approaches that," writes Gopnik. "In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education."

He concludes that "the scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life."

The Drug War

One of the main reasons why the U.S. has become a prison state is because of our disastrous, deadly and destructive war on drugs -- a war that didn't get a mention during the presidential campaign. Though even if it had, it likely wouldn't have been much of a debate. "The choice, for those of us who care about drug war issues, between Obama and Romney," wrote Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann, "is the choice between a disappointment and a disaster."

Or both, since in the last 40 years this disastrous war has cost us around $1 trillion. In 2010 alone, 850,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana violations. Of course, Obama wasn't the only big winner last Tuesday. Initiatives to legalize the use of marijuana passed in Colorado and Washington, as did one in Massachusetts legalizing medical marijuana.

Nationwide, support for legalizing pot hit 50 percent for the first time last year. And support for stopping the drug war is coming from across the political spectrum -- from Pat Robertson ("I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol... this war on drugs just hasn't succeeded" to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ("the war on drugs, while well-intentioned, has been a failure"). "The right and the left are aligning themselves against the drug war," says Eugene Jarecki, director of the drug war documentary The House I Live In. "Its days are numbered. The question is how will we embark on a path of well-guided reform."

More specifically, the question going forward is: Will the federal government embark on a path of reform? As with gay marriage, nobody is asking Obama to get out in front of the issue. It's too late for that. The country is already out front. What we're asking for him to do is join the rest of the country and lead the nation in articulating and codifying a more sensible drug policy. "What we need is a clear statement from the White House that federal authorities will defer to responsible local regulation," says Nadelmann.

But if what came before the election is any guide -- the administration shutting down dispensaries in California -- that might be too much to hope for. "Once these states actually try to implement these laws," predicts Kevin Sabet, former advisor to Obama's Office of National Drug Control Policy, "we will see an effort by the Feds to shut it down."

Meanwhile if you want to find out what you can do on the "necessary work of self-government" on prison and drug war issues in your community, check out Jarecki's website.

Climate Change

As HuffPost's Tom Zeller wrote, this was the first campaign since the 1980s in which neither candidate was asked about climate change in a debate or brought it up themselves. "I just think it's irresponsible for our leaders to not address one of the biggest challenges facing our generation," said executive director of Greenpeace USA Phil Radford. "It's one of the biggest security threats we have -- it's a threat to agriculture, it threatens our economy. And to simply not talk about it is one of the biggest failures of our leadership."

Of course, even if neither the candidates nor the media wanted to debate climate change, nature forced it into the public conversation in the form of Hurricane Sandy. And unlike a debate question, this one couldn't be ignored or brushed off. "In Sandy's wake must be a wake-up call," wrote Rep. Ed Markey. "Climate change is no longer some far off issue. It's at our doorstep right now. We must consider how to address the underlying factors that are fueling these extreme weather events." Or, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put it, "anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality."

But as the terrible human and financial cost of Sandy showed, it's not going to be enough to simply acknowledge climate change. That ship has also sailed. We need to do something about it.

In his victory speech, President Obama mentioned wanting our children to live in an America "that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet." But the energy policy he most often expressed during the campaign was more a contest with Mitt Romney to see who could win the Fossil Fuel Man of the Year Award. "The administration has been too fearful of taking on vested interests," said Wenona Hautner of the Food & Water Watch.

Yes, Obama mentions green technologies and renewable energy resources, but an "all of the above" approach is not enough anymore. "My takeaway," said Hautner, "is that if we're going to get anything done, we're going to have to make him do it."

Exactly. The voters have to make him do it. Though on this, we'll almost certainly get a little help from Mother Nature that has already staked out a non-negotiable position.

Voting

Wouldn't it be great if 2012 was our last third world election? Actually, that's unfair -- there are plenty of third world countries that manage to have much better run elections than we do. As we do every four years, we come together to vote, and then marvel at how disgraceful our voting system is. Once again, there were broken machines, lost votes, polls closing when they weren't supposed to, a patchwork of confusing rules, and, of course, lines -- three hours in D.C., five hours in Virginia, nine hours in Florida.

"In no other country, including federal systems such as Germany, Canada and Australia," writes David Frum, "does the citizen's opportunity to vote depend on the affluence and competence of his or her local government."

Like clockwork, every four years, the winning president says he's going to do something about improving the voting system. Yet, as Dan Froomkin reports, "Obama has not made improving the voting process a high priority during his first term."

The president did mention voting problems in his victory speech, when he thanked all those who voted "whether you voted for the first time, or waited in line for a very long time." He then ad-libbed, "By the way, we have to fix that."

And that's just the problem. Our entire voting system is a series of ad-libs. But to really fix it is going to require more than the quadrennial off-hand comment.

As Brad Plumer writes, there are plenty of things the president could do -- he lists five here, including modernizing the voter registration system and taking over state systems deemed to be "election disaster areas." Obama could also expand early voting, or make Election Day a holiday, options advocated by the group "Why Tuesday?" As HuffPost Live host Jacob Soboroff, who sits on the group's board, put it: "If [Obama] leads the way, the United States of America can go from one of the countries with the world's worst voter turnouts to the best. But will he? I hope so, but I'm not so sure."

None of us can be. And that's why we need to continue to push for all of these issues. A two-party system needs a loyal opposition -- but a loyal opposition based on facts and reality. In the absence of that, constructive criticism will have to come from within the Democratic Party itself, along with independents and Republicans who are emerging from the bubble they have been living in. (Senator Rand Paul took a couple of steps in that direction this week.) I'm not discounting the obstacles on the way to addressing these challenges. But that doesn't mean we should sweep these important issues under the rug -- or allow the president to.

In his victory speech, the president said: "Whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you, and you've made me a better president."

It's up to citizens not just to elect presidents but to make them better.

 

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