State of the Union: Obama's ambitious second-term agenda
Prospects are mixed for President Obama's second-term agenda, from immigration to climate change to economic recovery. Both Obama and the Republicans are walking a tricky political line.
Washington — What are the prospects for President Obama’s top goals? There are the discrete items – measures on guns, immigration, climate change, health care – while high unemployment and stagnant economic growth still hang over everything. At the heart of Mr. Obama's agenda remains his core campaign commitment to the middle class, a theme that ran through his second inaugural and will surely carry into the State of the Union message on Tuesday.
Perhaps the biggest question ahead of the State of the Union message is whether Obama will offer new details on deficit reduction, particularly in Medicare and Social Security. If Republicans want to tie the president up in knots, they have the rope: looming deadlines for deep spending cuts known as "the sequester;" the expiration of the latest temporary budget extension, which could force a government shutdown; and the next debt ceiling.
But Obama is expected to hang tough.
"I think he's confident that the discussion can take place on his terms, with the majority House Republicans still exposed to the blame if something isn't done," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
On the range of domestic issues, Obama is taking his case directly to the American people in a way he says he failed to do in his first term. "With public opinion, there's nothing you can't accomplish," he told The New Republic in January, citing his hero Abraham Lincoln.
Here are Obama's top domestic agenda items and their prospects:
Gun violence. The Newtown, Conn., school massacre shocked the nation – and the president – like no other recent tragedy. But Americans are far from consensus on how to address gun violence, and measures before Congress face a mixed future.
A renewed ban on military-style assault weapons is likely to go down. Even Vice President Joe Biden, head of Obama's gun task force, acknowledges that such weapons account for only a small percentage of firearm deaths, and he says he's more concerned about banning high-capacity ammunition magazines – those with more than 10 rounds. But the powerful gun lobby opposes that ban as well.
A measure requiring background checks for all gun sales – not just those by registered dealers – to screen for people with criminal records and psychiatric problems has greater bipartisan support. Obama wants to move fast on gun control, as passions fade. But if even one significant gun measure reaches Obama's desk, he will have made his mark. No major gun-control law has passed since 1994.
Immigration. The dormant drive for comprehensive reform has come roaring back, following Obama's lopsided defeat of Mitt Romney among Latinos last November. Republicans such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush argue that many Latinos will not hear the GOP's message on economic opportunity and family values until the party adopts a more compassionate tone toward those in the country illegally.
But a plan by a bipartisan group of eight senators – welcomed by Obama, who announced his own similar plan – is far from assured passage. One sticking point is the inclusion of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, deemed "amnesty" by conservatives. Proponents defend the plan by saying "earned citizenship" is contingent on securing US borders and better tracking of people in the United States on visas. The plan also calls for improved employment verification to discourage illegal workers, as well as reforms to the legal immigration system to better serve employers' needs.
Immigration reform is one of the big unfulfilled promises of Obama's first term. Some conservatives argue that Democrats would rather have the issue hanging than resolved. But if it passes, Obama will be the first to sign comprehensive reform since President Reagan in 1986. And it would mark a step in Obama's quest to be a transformational president, like Reagan.
Climate change. Another issue that had faded from Obama's rhetoric came back on Election Night and again in his second inaugural – a sign that a second-term Obama is an Obama liberated from electoral concerns. On Inauguration Day, not only did he express enthusiasm for green energy and green jobs, but he also attacked climate-change skeptics – those who "still deny the overwhelming judgment of science."
But don't expect a return of "cap and trade," the 2009 bill to create a market around greenhouse-gas emissions. (It passed the House but died in the Senate.) Instead, Obama is more likely to establish a climate legacy through executive action, including regulation.
One test will come over the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which environmentalists oppose, saying it would exacerbate global warming and risk environmental damage on its route from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Obama says he favors an "all of the above" energy strategy – and may approve Keystone for that reason, as well as for the jobs it promises. But he would break environmentalists' hearts.
Health care. In a big way, Obama has already cemented his legacy by enacting sweeping reform of the health-insurance system. And by winning reelection, he can ensure that Obamacare will not be repealed, at least for another four years.
But the US Supreme Court's ruling that made expansion of Medicaid optional for states means that many low-income people will remain uncovered, though six Republican governors have now agreed to expansion – a sign that Obamacare is sinking roots. Many states are also refusing to set up the "exchanges" that will allow individuals to join the new insurance system for coverage starting next Jan. 1.
In the State of the Union message, Obama may well include a pitch for his reform – extraordinary, in a way, given that he signed the law nearly three years ago. But if growth in the ranks of the insured falls far below expectations by the time he leaves office, his legacy achievement might not be as big as he had hoped.