Perhaps more than any other president in recent memory, when Barack Obama took office in early 2009 he faced a host of nearly overwhelming problems: huge stock market losses; giant “too big to fail” banks on the verge of failure; an auto industry about to go belly-up; two ongoing wars with no end in sight; home foreclosures at a record high; and soaring unemployment, to mention just a few.
Add to that witches’ brew the assertion made by GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Is it any wonder that Obama spent much of his first term concentrating on the most urgent items on his agenda: health care reform, ending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and salvaging a tanking economy, all the while dealing with Republicans in Congress who refused to govern as they were elected to do?
Now that he has been re-elected, and now that one of the seemingly many political “third rails” — rational gun control — is back on the table, here are three more critical but politically risky issues for Obama to confront.
1. Impose a tax on carbon.
The devastation of Superstorm Sandy has re-energized the national debate about global warming, an issue that many Obama supporters want to see high up on his second term agenda. One specific step he could take is to propose a tax on carbon.
A form of pollution tax, a carbon tax:
levies a fee on the production, distribution or use of fossil fuels based on how much carbon their combustion emits. The government sets a price per ton on carbon, then translates it into a tax on electricity, natural gas or oil. Because the tax makes using dirty fuels more expensive, it encourages utilities, businesses and individuals to reduce consumption and increase energy efficiency. Carbon tax also makes alternative energy more cost-competitive with cheaper, polluting fuels like coal, natural gas and oil.
To date, the Obama administration has rejected the idea of carbon taxes and the current fiscal cliff fiasco has made the imposition of any new taxes a perilous proposition indeed. But the idea is gaining traction in climate change circles — even Exxon Mobil has jumped on board. Of course, that in itself could raise more than one red flag.
2. End the exemption on “carried interest.”
This exemption allows hedge fund managers and other investment firm executives — such as former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney — to avoid regular income tax rates by paying lower capital gains tax rates on their wages. Often these wages are simply fees charged for investing other people’s money. The argument for this exemption is that it encourages investment, a claim that many question. And if these executives were forced to pay regular income tax like the rest of us slobs, the estimated revenue over the next ten years is $17.7 billion.
3. Do something about campaign finance reform.
The recent election was the most expensive in history — according to Steven Schwinn, not only did it cost a stupefying $6 billion, but also approximately one of every six dollars came from outside groups, many of which claimed — not surprisingly — to be “independent.” This issue might be the most difficult of all to address, thanks in part to the Supreme Court, which infamously ruled in Citizens United v FEC that restrictions on corporate political spending amounted to a violation of free speech. In other words, corporations are just folks. However, there are things to be done: public financing could be tied to a candidates’ small donations; campaign contributions could be more effectively limited; and, most importantly, disclosure and disclaimer requirements could be required, allowing everyone to see who really is behind the candidate and the “independent” groups.
All of these measures are small steps. None solves the massive problems of climate change, banking/investment industry malfeasance and the corrupting power of money in our most sacred political process. However, each one represents an act of will and a gesture of political courage. Since Obama’s reelection, the GOP has shown no sign of any increased willingness to work with the president to solve the nation’s daunting problems, the above included. But maybe, with a solid popular victory behind him, Obama can stop having to constantly watch his back, and in the words of Garrison Keillor, “do what needs to be done.”