WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama says his Republican challenger has the “wrong vision” for the country. So what is his?
Some of his agenda for a second term is a continuation of the first. He’d raise taxes on annual family incomes above $250,000. He’d continue to spend on education and green energy. He’d implement the health care law and financial regulations already enacted. And he’d continue to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan with a goal of getting them all out by the end of 2014.
Much of his plan is an open question, though, rendered all the more mysterious when he was caught on an open microphone telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year that he’d have “more flexibility” after the November election. To do what isn’t yet clear. Though he’s offered broad themes on the campaign trail, Obama has yet to flesh out the details.
Some of the possible second-term goals are ones he set aside in the first when they were too difficult or politically costly. They include a rewrite of immigration laws, efforts to combat global warming and a sweeping change in the tax code beyond the year-to-year extensions of Bush-era tax cuts.
Despite the gridlock that’s paralyzed Washington since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives after the 2010 elections, Obama thinks his re-election would make it more likely that he could reach agreements with them. With him in for another four years and no more, he thinks, the Republican “fever” would break.
“My hope and my expectation is that after the election, now that it turns out the goal of beating Obama doesn’t make much sense because I’m not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again,” he said earlier this summer.
Fiscal policy would be job one from the moment of re-election. The government faces a “fiscal cliff” of scheduled tax increases and spending cuts at the end of this year. If he and Congress can’t reach a permanent agreement this year, the face-off will carry into his second term and a new session of Congress.
That could “impede anything else he wants to do,” said William Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton who’s a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
The fiscal cliff could give Obama and lawmakers an opportunity to try to reach a deal on overhauling the tax code; they failed at it last year during talks over extending the nation’s debt ceiling.
But the sides remain just as sharply at odds: The president wants to continue the Bush-era tax cuts only for families who make less than $250,000, and he’s said that any tax code overhaul must shift more of the burden to high earners. Republicans oppose raising taxes. He’s likely to “continue to push for doing more in the short term to create jobs and boost economic growth,” says Brian Deese, deputy director of the White House’s National Economic Council. “But alongside that we need to not just kick the can down the road, but implement a serious long-term deficit plan.”
Beyond the must-do, much of what Obama hopes to accomplish may depend on its reception in Congress, where a Republican-led House has blocked most of his agenda.
“The question is, do Republicans see success in continuing a scorched-earth strategy, or do they figure since Obama won’t be on the ticket, they’ll agree to get some things done and make themselves look a little better,” said Tom Perriello, a former Democratic congressman from Virginia who’s the president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a left-of-center think tank with close ties to the administration. “The ball is still somewhat going to be in their court.”
Perriello expects Obama to keep pushing for new spending on infrastructure, clean energy and education in a bid to goose the economy.
The president has cited budget deficit reduction, the highway transportation bill and immigration as areas where he and Republicans could find common ground. And, he said that if the Republican “fever” were to break, he’d hope for support for clean energy and energy efficiency.
White House energy legislation cleared the then-Democratic-controlled House in 2009, but it never advanced. Obama rarely raises the issue.
Environmentalists hope that a second term would lead to substantial climate-change legislation.
“Looking back in 20 years, what does or does not happen in terms of climate change could be a defining indicator of success for his administration, and we’ve told them that,” said Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director. “The challenge is that we have to go a lot further and a lot more quickly.”
Obama says he’d push for immigration restructuring if he’s re-elected, after disappointing many Hispanic advocacy groups that had hoped for sweeping immigration revisions in his first term. “I can promise that I will try to do it in the first year of my second term,” he told Univision in April.
Immigration advocates applauded his decision in June to stop deporting some young undocumented students and workers, but they said there was still the problem of nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“It’s fair to say there’s some unfinished business,” said Eric Rodriguez, the vice president of public policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights organization with close ties to the administration. He hasn’t had talks with the administration about its plan, but he said second terms often came with thoughts of the presidents’ legacies. Also, insiders think that an Obama re-election with two-thirds of the vital Hispanic vote could bring Republicans to the table.
“There’s that early part of a second term where there may be greater political capital to expend some energy on an issue that could be a signature accomplishment,” Rodriguez said.
Obama could get to fill a Supreme Court vacancy or two if he’s re-elected, and he’d have a number of high-profile Cabinet seats to fill: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are expected to leave at the end of this term.
Second terms often are marked by a focus on foreign policy, particularly as presidents halfway through their second terms begin to be viewed as “lame ducks,” their power diminishing as they approach the ends of their administrations.
Obama has a number of unfinished foreign-policy entanglements: He’s pledged to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but that’s been complicated by a spike in the number of attacks on coalition troops by Afghan security forces.
A year after he demanded that Syrian leader Bashar Assad step down, the country remains in turmoil and the U.S. seems to have few solutions.
Obama also has been unable to prevent Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear enrichment program that the U.S. and Israel fear will result in a nuclear-armed Iran.
The president’s critics have their own take on his agenda for a second term. After Obama’s remarks to Medvedev, Republican challenger Mitt Romney warned the National Rifle Association that an “unrestrained” Obama would look to clip gun rights.
The president poked fun at the rampant Internet speculation about his second term at a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April, joking about his “conspiracy-oriented friends on the right, who think I’m planning to unleash some secret agenda: You’re absolutely right.”
Among the items on his list: “In my first term, we ended the war in Iraq; in my second term, I will win the war on Christmas.”