Opinion

Reihan Salam

Obama’s legacy could be moral rather than political

Reihan Salam
May 24, 2013 16:03 UTC

Barack Obama had high hopes for his second term. In his lofty second inaugural address, he celebrated the virtues of activist government and pledged to redouble his efforts to fight climate change, among other causes dear to American liberals. Yet there is a growing perception that the president’s agenda has stalled. Congressional leaders continue to work toward comprehensive immigration reform legislation, but the Obama administration has mostly taken a hands-off approach. The president devoted several weeks to making the case for more stringent gun regulation, to no avail. Obama’s speech this week recasting the war on terror and drone policy may have been ambitious, but the goals remain thorny and controversial and therefore unlikely to define his presidency. And though he has continued to make the case for substantial tax increases on upper-income Americans, the House GOP remains staunchly opposed. Indeed, conservative anger over Benghazi and IRS targeting of conservative groups has led many Republicans to believe that the president is on the ropes and that they ought to press every advantage.

This raises the question of what kind of legacy President Obama will have. Even if Obama accomplishes nothing between now and the end of his second term, he will have been one of the most consequential presidents in modern American history, for better or for worse. During the 111th Congress, Democratic majorities in the House and Senate passed an unprecedented fiscal stimulus law; the Affordable Care Act; a sweeping student loan overhaul; and the biggest new round of financial regulations since the Great Depression. The president’s re-election victory made it far more likely that these legislative initiatives will endure, even in the face of determined Republican opposition.

But there is something unsatisfying about playing defense, and one imagines that the president, an ambitious and competitive man, longs to do more. One possibility, hinted at in a recent speech, is that Obama might take advantage of his prestige and moral authority to make the case for stronger American families. This need not entail any new legislation, though the president’s conservative critics might welcome that. Rather, it will require a series of firm and consistent moral arguments about what parents, and particularly fathers, owe to their children.

As a general rule, the politicians who’ve been most passionate about the cause of strengthening marriage have come from the right side of the political spectrum, where being a moralistic scold is no crime. Two Republican presidential candidates from last year – Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum ‑ are classic examples. The trouble is that for all their good intentions, Santorum and Romney are, to put it mildly, culturally removed from the Americans most directly affected by the transformation of American family life. Romney’s family in particular read like a caricature of 1950s wholesomeness, and his own upbringing as the son of an auto industry executive and governor was not exactly relatable.

The same can’t be said of Barack Obama, who, like 33 percent of American children today, was raised by a single parent. During a moving commencement address on May 19 at Morehouse College in Atlanta, one of the country’s most renowned historically black educational institutions, Obama briefly recalled his experiences as the son of a single mother. Having praised his mother and his grandparents for the sacrifices they had made on his behalf, he said, “I sure wish I had a father who was not only present, but involved.” And so, he explained, he endeavored to be the kind of father he wished he had as a youth, and “to break that cycle where a father is not at home.”

Fixing immigration, but not necessarily the Rubio way

Reihan Salam
Jan 22, 2013 22:44 UTC

In U.S. political debates, there is a tendency to separate economic issues, like taxes, spending and regulation, from social issues, like abortion rights, gay rights and gun rights. Immigration, as a general rule, tends to fall in this latter bucket, as an issue that comes up mainly because it matters to Latino and Asian voters and a handful of vocal immigration restrictionists.

There is a decent case that immigration should really be understood as an economic issue – indeed, as the most important economic issue facing U.S. policymakers. That is part of why Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has attracted so much attention for his recent call for comprehensive immigration reform, a call echoed by voices across the political spectrum, including President Barack Obama’s. But Rubio’s plan has been met with considerable resistance, in large part because debates over immigration policy also have a moral dimension. Understanding it is key to breaking out of our immigration impasse. 

But first, it is important to understand why the immigration issue is gaining momentum. Back in 2011, J.P. Morgan released a report that found that U.S. households own $70 trillion in physical and financial assets. This same report found that America’s stock of human capital, i.e., the collective education and experience of all U.S. workers, amounted to $700 trillion. Rather than pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into new roads, bridges and housing units, the surest and cheapest strategy for increasing our collective wealth is to import talented workers. Even as the United States is mired in a sluggish semi-recovery, vast numbers of skilled English-speaking foreigners are eager to settle in, to start  businesses and buy homes. These keen would-be immigrants represent low-hanging economic fruit, a fact that is well understood in Silicon Valley and Wall Street, where high-wattage immigrants have made an outsized contribution.

Tax hikes conservatives can love

Reihan Salam
Dec 14, 2012 21:22 UTC

Though it is hard to tell exactly how the fiscal cliff tug-of-war will end, what we can say is that Democrats and Republicans have been drearily unimaginative. President Obama wants to see the top two federal income tax rates increase above their current levels.

Obama has called for a top rate of 39.6 percent, though he has signaled a willingness to compromise on a somewhat lower rate. While he has said he is open to entitlement reform in some vague way, he has so far refused to be pinned down on the details. Essentially, he is asking congressional Republicans to make a big concession on taxes and to trust that he will honor his end of the deal by agreeing to embrace spending restraint in 2013.

Republicans are by and large opposed to a top tax rate above today’s 35 percent. Though they too have been light on details, many have instead embraced sharp limits on popular tax exemptions for high earners to raise revenue. Others have suggested they’d be willing to budge on tax rates. Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) has called on his fellow House Republicans to pass two bills, one that extends the Bush-era high-income rate reductions and another that extends everything else, with the understanding that the latter will become law while the former will fall into oblivion. This strategic retreat is designed to allow Republicans to use the forthcoming fight over the debt limit to secure, among other things, a hike in the Medicare eligibility age.

Are we having the wrong marriage debate?

Reihan Salam
Oct 19, 2012 21:34 UTC

The marriage debate is entering a new phase. As recently as 1996, a Gallup survey found that 68 percent of Americans opposed civil marriage rights for same-sex couples. On May 8 of this year, Gallup released a report which found that only 48 percent were opposed to same-sex marriage while 50 percent were in favor. The next day, in an interview with Robin Roberts of ABC News, President Barack Obama announced that he too favored the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, a move that delighted social liberals, many of whom believed that the president’s previous tepid opposition was rooted in political concerns rather than real conviction.

Even in the months since, the legal and political ground has continued to shift in favor of same-sex marriage. Just this week, a divided panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a law that limits federal recognition of marriages to couples consisting of one man and one woman, is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, ballot initiatives aiming to uphold laws authorizing same-sex civil marriage are leading in Maine, Maryland and Washington. Perhaps most strikingly, a re-energized Romney campaign has made little effort to capitalize on opposition to same-sex marriage.

Opponents of the practice have no intention of throwing in the towel; nor is it inevitable that the legal and political efforts of advocates will continue to succeed. In November, Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson are releasing What Is Marriage?, a vigorous intellectual critique of the case for same-sex civil marriage that has attracted wide attention in traditionalist circles. Moreover, opponents have achieved a number of political victories at the state and local level, most notably in North Carolina in May of this year.

  •