Opinion

The Great Debate

Obama mobilizes his New America

There’s a reason why President Barack Obama has chosen to put gun control at the top of his second-term agenda. No issue draws as bright a line between the Old America and the New America as the gun issue. It will keep his coalition mobilized – the New America coalition that delivered for him in the election: working women, single mothers, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Jewish and Muslim voters, young people, gays and educated professionals.

Obama paid tribute to the New America in his second Inaugural Address on Monday. “We possess all the qualities,” Obama declared, “that this world without boundaries demands, youth and drive, diversity and openness, of endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.”

Obama insisted “our journey is not complete” until the country finds a “better way to welcome striving hopeful immigrants,” until “our wives, mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” until “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law” and until all our children – including those on “the quiet lanes of Newtown” – know that they are “always safe from harm.”

According to the January Washington Post-ABC News poll, 68 percent of Democrats do not have a gun in their household.  Fifty-nine percent of Republicans do. Among Democrats, 53 percent say passing stricter gun control laws should be given the highest priority; only 19 percent of Republicans feel the same way.

The New America coalition can deliver in presidential elections. Democrats have won the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential contests. But that coalition is not as reliable in midterm elections, unless it’s mobilized by an impeachment issue (1998) or an antiwar issue (2006). Nor is it particularly reliable in battles over legislation. Obama nearly lost the healthcare fight because his coalition got out-organized by the Tea Party.

For Obama’s second Inaugural, skip the poetry

President Barack Obama should hope that old adage, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” isn’t true. In his second Inaugural Address Monday, he has a chance to sharpen his arguments and move the nation in a way that eluded him the first time around.

Instead of a soggy sermon about political maturity, Obama should offer a ripping defense of his vision of government and its role in the economy. He has nothing to fear but controversy itself.

Obama faces a low bar. Facing history, presidents often choke. They know that these talks are among the only ones sure to be collected in a book or chiseled on the wall of their presidential library. The genre tends toward the ponderous.

When political compromise is suspect

The odds are that the extremely close national election wasn’t close at all in the place where you live.

And that’s a problem.

For the past four decades, Americans have been self-segregating into communities where they are increasingly likely to vote with their neighbors in overwhelming majorities. In 1976, only a quarter of voters lived in a county where either Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford won by 20 points or more. By 2008, 46.7 percent of voters lived in one of these landslide counties.

This year, the national margins narrowed still further. But more than half of all voters (52 percent) lived in a county where either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney won by 20 percentage points or more.

Fiscal cliff: D.C.’s Mayan apocalypse

We are careening toward Dec. 21, 2012, the date of the Mayan apocalypse, when the world is supposed to come to an end through a series of cataclysmic upheavals, according to assorted astrologers and mystics ‑ though not the Mayans themselves, who said it was merely the end of their calendar. We are also hurtling toward the Jan. 1 “fiscal cliff,” when the American economy could re-enter a devastating recession ‑ a man-made mini-apocalypse.

What has motivated people, across so many civilizations and centuries, to devise and believe in an apocalypse? Understanding this might help us address the ideological gridlock now propelling Republicans and Democrats toward this fiscal “end of days.”

There have always been groups who believe in a coming apocalypse, suggesting this is inherent in human nature. People who experience life as traumatic, devastating or chaotic are prone to project such nihilistic visions onto the world at large. Anxiety about one’s own death can also evoke a catastrophic apprehension about the end of the entire world.

Policy debates in the Internet Age

Technology is changing how power struggles are waged between the White House and Congress. For the last few years, negotiations between Democratic and Republican leaders have too often led to stalemate. The battle over how to avert the “fiscal cliff” is the latest example.

Since President Barack Obama’s reelection, he has begun to shift strategies — taking his case directly to the American people as a way to pressure Congress. After all, members of Congress ignore their president without penalty, but ignoring the opinions of their constituents can cost them their jobs.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both effectively used television to address the nation when facing off against a House of Representatives controlled by the opposing party. While TV will remain important, going directly to the American people continue to morph in the era of the Internet. Political messages can be customized and narrowly targeted.

Fighting the filibuster

President Barack Obama recently said Congress should “seize the moment” and summon a majority to push immigration reform. There is only one problem – Congress already did that.

Majorities in the House and Senate backed the DREAM Act, a bill creating a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children, during Obama’s first term. The bill died, however, when a minority of Republicans filibustered it. So even if a new immigration majority materializes next year, Republicans can just filibuster again. Unless Erika Andiola gets her way.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is due to hear arguments  Dec. 10 in Andiola’s case – an ambitious and erudite lawsuit from Common Cause – which argues that a small band of senators have turned the filibuster into an unconstitutional assault on our democratic government.

When talk was of investing in public good

Washington negotiations to avert the “fiscal cliff” now include the role that tax increases could play in addressing the federal budget deficit. Serious cracks are appearing in the Republican lawmakers’ anti-tax firewall, as fewer new GOP legislators are signing Grover Norquist’s pledge and some high-profile signatories are questioning it.

Norquist is urging policymakers to look to the states for inspiration in crafting federal budget reform. But his claim that states want to eliminate key sources of revenue is out of step with reality — and with the broader history of tax reform at the state level.

Throughout American history, in fact, popular support for higher revenues to fund key public services has been more common than today’s anti-tax advocates realize. State legislators and governors have long relied on new revenue to fund crucial public services.

GOP: Blame message not the messenger

Here’s what’s supposed to be happening:  After losing two presidential elections, Republicans are supposed to be re-evaluating what their party stands for.  Are they out of line with mainstream America?  Does the party need to change?

The answer is yes.  So the party moves to the center and searches for candidates with broader appeal.  Republicans don’t need another spectacle like the 2012 primaries, where the contenders ran the gamut from a panderer to the right (Mitt Romney) to the far right (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum) to the extreme right (Representative Michele Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry) to the lunatic fringe (Herman Cain, Representative Ron Paul).

There was one moderate in 2012 — Jon Huntsman.  Huntsman didn’t make it past New Hampshire, where he came in first among the tiny number of Democrats who voted in the Republican primary.

A mandate to help the middle class

The focus in Washington has now shifted to the fiscal cliff, with the White House and Congress, particularly the House Republicans, staking out negotiating positions on the expiring Bush tax cuts and the looming budget sequester.

The White House’s firm opening salvo—and House Speaker John Boehner’s grudging admission that he is “open” to a budget deal that contains new revenue—have been much discussed. With six in 10 Americans expressing support for higher taxes in exit polls on Nov. 6, President Barack Obama’s position is a strong one.

It’s important to remember, however, that the public came out on Election Day in support of more than Obama’s tax stance. Exit polls and public-opinion surveys show that the president’s mandate goes far beyond taxes and the fiscal cliff.

Obama’s mandate: tax increase on rich

Republican leaders such as Grover Norquist and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continue to strike a hard line on taxes and revenues, “warning” President Barack Obama that the GOP will not negotiate or compromise when it comes to tax policy and deficit reduction.

From an electoral politics standpoint, the Democrats should “have at it.”

As the election made clear, this policy is out of step with voters. Obama made raising taxes on people making more than $250,000 a year a centerpiece of his economic message – something he emphasized in his recent press conference – and he was rewarded with a resounding victory. Voters also handed Democrats an increased Senate majority, where the tax debate played out front-and-center in many campaigns.

This theme echoed through state politics as well. Voters in California, for example, passed Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to fund K-12 public schools through a revenue increase that comes from the highest earners.

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