President Obama began his Second Inaugural Address stating that "We affirm the promise of our democracy." That promise, he said, was articulated in our Declaration of Independence more than two centuries ago: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...."
But the president also recognized that this self-evident truth has "never been self-executing." Instead, he said, it is every generation's task "to act in our time" to make sure that the Declaration's self-evident truths become "real for every American."
Ironically, the Americans for whom equality and democracy have still not become real are those living in the very city where the president was speaking -- the District of Columbia, the capital of the nation he is leading for a second term.
Most Americans are simply unaware that the residents of the District of Columbia don't have the same rights that all other U.S. citizens have. Although D.C. residents pay federal taxes, fight in the country's wars, and are subject to the country's laws, they have no voting representation in the Congress that imposes those taxes, declares those wars, and passes those laws.
In addition, D.C. residents don't even have the right to make their own local laws and determine how to spend their own locally-raised revenues -- because all of this is subject to review, approval, and veto by Congress.
But all this may be about to change. Just a few days before his inauguration, President Obama made clear that he was aware of the lack of equality in the District of Columbia and that he intended to address it in his second term.
First, he announced that he would be the first president in 13 years to use the District's "Taxation without Representation" license plate on presidential vehicles. And more importantly, he issued a statement proclaiming his "willingness to fight for voting rights, Home Rule and budget autonomy for the District."
Before Obama, no U.S. president has ever announced a willingness to take on this broad a fight. But it's the right fight at the right time for this president. The District is the nation's capital -- and it will take leadership at a national level to bring real democracy to the city. Here are four things Obama can do now to lead this fight.
Use his bully pulpit. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans are unaware that their capital city lacks full democracy. Those polls also show that when Americans do become aware, they overwhelmingly support giving D.C. residents the same rights as other U.S. citizens. Obama could use the power of the presidency to build a much-needed nationwide constituency to support D.C. democracy. He could start by announcing in his State of the Union address that greater democracy for the nation's capital is part of his second-term agenda. He could state that while this country is leading the fight for democracy abroad, it must also make sure that democracy exists here at home in our own capital.
As a former constitutional law professor, Obama could also explain that it's a complete historical accident that the world's leading democracy has never given full democracy to residents of its capital city. The Framers of our 1789 Constitution intended for all U.S. residents to be represented in Congress, and they achieved this by providing that all 13 States would be fully represented. But when the nation's capital was later carved out of Maryland and Virginia in 1801, those residents lost their representation, and because so few people lived in the new District, Congress didn't bother to do anything about it. Now, 200 years later, the District is home to more than 632,000 people. Yet it remains the only capital of any democracy in the world whose residents have no voting representation in their national legislature. The president can and should say he is determined to change this.
Support the D.C. voting rights bills in Congress. One of the first set of bills introduced in the House in January would give D.C. residents full voting representation. The president could urge congressional leadership to hold hearings on these bills and promptly pass them -- and promise to sign them as soon as they reach his desk.
Support local budget autonomy for the District. The District can't spend its local revenue without a congressional appropriation. This means that whenever the federal government is in danger of a shutdown, so is the D.C. government. Most in Congress agree this is absurd, but so far it has been unable to give the District autonomy over its budget.
Obama, however, could effectively accomplish this himself. On April 23, D.C. residents are expected to ratify a local budget autonomy amendment to the city charter. The amendment will become law after 35 days unless both Houses of Congress pass a joint disapproval resolution that is subsequently signed by the president. By announcing now that he won't sign any disapproval resolution, Obama can guarantee that local budget autonomy will become law.
Veto bills that overturn local D.C. laws. Although the Constitution makes Congress the District's ultimate legislature, the Framers never intended for Congress to use this provision to meddle in local municipal affairs. As James Madison recognized in Federalist No. 43, "a municipal legislature for local purposes, derived from their own suffrages, will of course be allowed to them."
In that spirit, Obama could threaten to veto any bill that would override the decisions of the city's locally elected Council and Mayor on purely local issues. D.C. residents would welcome this departure from the president's previous stance, such as when the District's local budgetary decisions were overturned and bargained away as part of the 2011 federal budget negotiations.
Democracy for the nation's capital is an issue whose time has come. The president can make sure that that self-evident truth at last becomes real.