Now that Barack Obama has secured another four years in the White House, his next task is deciding what he is going to accomplish while he is there. The list of possibilities is long; here are just six priorities in no particular order, a combination of new needs and of promises he made in 2008 that he has not fulfilled. (In some cases he did try to keep a promise, but was stymied by an intransigent legislature; nevertheless, having good intentions is not the same as enacting a good law, and these policies are too important to let drop.)
1. Sick Leave
Millions of Americans are in danger of losing their jobs if they take so much as one day off because they are sick or need to care for an ill family member. The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects employees who take up to 12 weeks off for medical reasons, but the FMLA covers only employers with 50 or more employees — plus, those are 12 unpaid weeks. Many workers can’t afford to forgo their pay should they fall ill.
During his first run for the presidency Obama promised to reduce the FMLA threshold from 50 employees to 25, which would increase the number of employees guaranteed unpaid sick leave. He also said he would create a federal requirement that employers provide seven paid sick days a year.
Obama also wanted to expand the conditions the FMLA covers to include leave for reasons related to domestic violence or sexual assault.
At the state level, Obama planned to provide $1.5 billion to encourage and help states to adopt paid-leave policies.
He hasn’t fulfilled any of these promises, leaving people in danger of losing substantial earnings or even their jobs if they or a family member become sick. As Obama said himself, “nobody in America should have to choose between keeping their job and caring for a sick child or an ailing parent.”
2. Pollution and Climate Change
Obama made big promises about enacting cap-and-trade legislation, restoring Superfund programs and making other changes to protect the environment. He hasn’t done any of these things, and on the campaign trail this time around made barely a peep about climate change.
Obama made detailed promises about the cap and trade program he would implement. The program would cap the amount of carbon a company could emit, but permit it to trade permits with other companies if it wanted to emit more carbon or was emitting less than its maximum and wanted to profit from the difference. Gradually the overall cap would decrease, lowering carbon emissions nationwide.
Cap and trade would create a capitalist market in carbon emissions. It sounds like something that would appeal to Republicans, but they haven’t bought it, making it one more promise Obama hasn’t kept. A domino effect from this failure has crushed another of the President’s promises: to use the “revenue from cap and trade to support clean energy and environmental restoration,” as Politifact describes.
Superfund requires polluters to pay to clean up their own messes. It has stalled for lack of funds. Previously a tax on the oil and chemical industries paid to clean up “orphaned” sites for which the polluter could not be found or no longer existed. Approximately half of the toxic sites in the nation are orphaned.
The tax that paid to clean up orphaned sites was cut, hampering the Environmental Protection Agency’s “ability to conduct environmental cleanups around the country.” Obama has not succeeded in restoring the pivotal tax.
Obama planned to pass a law requiring “transportation fuel producers and importers to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from their fuels,” including emissions during production as well as use of the fuel. Companies could offset high emissions fuels by also producing low emissions fuels, like hydrogen, to lower their average “carbon intensity.” The law would help reduce American dependence on foreign oil as well as pollution. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t exist.
3. The Freedom of Choice Act
Some states are relentlessly chipping away at women’s right to choose abortion. Obama promised a solution called the Freedom of Choice Act, which would prohibit governments at every level from interfering with women’s right to abortion before viability, and their right to abortion after viability if their lives or health were endangered. Not only has this Act not materialized, but as early as March 2009 Obama announced that it was not his “highest” legislative priority. This promise wasn’t just broken, it was snubbed.
The 2008 Obama promised a new deal for undocumented immigrants: those in good standing would be able “to pay a fine, learn English, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens,” according to The Fiscal Times.
It would have beat deportation, but deportation is what we got. In fact, “the Obama administration has been deporting illegal immigrants like crazy,” reports Reason.com. In These Times posits that this is a ploy to inoculate the administration “from right-wing attacks, and gain leverage for reform.” But the Republicans didn’t want to play, and Obama’s promise, which could have ended mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, has gone unfulfilled notwithstanding the new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program — that initiative offers only qualified, temporary protection and only to people who immigrated as children.
5. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act
During his first campaign Obama promised to champion “a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act to outlaw workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” As federal law stands, employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is legal. Employers may not discriminate based on gender stereotypes, so a worker may argue that she suffered discrimination for not fulfilling her boss’s expectations for women’s behavior and appearance — i.e., that she was victimized because she seemed “butch.” But this is a far cry from being able to sue for discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Obama should fight hard to get this necessary law enacted.
6. The Paycheck Fairness Act
This isn’t one Obama promised, just something he ought to do now that he has the chance: get the Paycheck Fairness Act enacted. The legislation would go a long way towards narrowing the wide and enduring pay gap between women and men. As Care2′s Jessica Pieklo explains, the Act would
mandate that employers prove any pay disparity is job related; would prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who share salary information with co-workers; strengthen punitive and compensatory damages; require the U.S. Department of Labor to improve outreach to employers to eliminate pay disparities; enhance the collection of wage information to address pay disparities, and create grant programs to strengthen the negotiation skills of girls and women.
This is not only an issue of basic fairness and of gender discrimination, but also of economic necessity: with so many households living off the paychecks of women, it is more urgent than ever to ensure that employers are paying women what they are worth, not just what the employers can get away with.
Watch for my next post about some of the financial measures Obama should prioritize in his second term.