5 Things Obama Could Actually Get Done This Year
Policy + Politics

5 Things Obama Could Actually Get Done This Year

© Carlos Barria / Reuters

President Obama acknowledged in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that time was fast running out to get anything done as the nation turns its attention to the 2016 presidential campaign. But while he skipped the traditional presidential laundry list of goals and proposals for his final year in office, Obama refused to throw in the towel.

“I understand that because it’s an election season, expectations for what we’ll achieve this year are low,” he said. “We just might surprise the cynics again.”

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Many of the president’s most cherished goals unquestionably are out of reach in this highly charged political atmosphere, including immigration reform, gun control, paid parental leave, an increase in the minimum wage, and agreement on new war powers in the battle against ISIS. But depending on how well Obama can get along with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and other congressional GOP leaders, there may be an opening for passage of important legislation before the November general election, according to some analysts.

“As the election year moves forward, there are some opportunities for the president and Congress to work in a bipartisan way, but it’s very limited,” Ron Bonjean, a Washington policy analyst and former Republican congressional spokesman, said in an interview on Wednesday. “If we don’t see action on major pieces of legislation by Memorial Day, it’s very difficult to see anything else getting done because of the election.”

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said that “this could be a mildly productive year, all with issues below the radar.”

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Here are five areas of potential common ground for the president and Congress in the coming months: 

1. Criminal justice reform. With both parties concerned about costly prison overcrowding and excessive prison sentences resulting from the government’s decades-old war on drugs, sentencing reforms appear to be fertile ground for a major compromise. With violent crimes down, many liberals and conservatives agree that the current federal prison system is a huge waste of money and human potential that doesn’t necessarily make the streets safer.

At one point, reformists had high hopes for a progressive bill drafted by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) that was designed to sharply reduce the number of people sent to federal prisons annually -- currently about 70,000, according to The Marshall Project. But a far less ambitious bill sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) may likely be the best Congress and the White House can do. That legislation would reduce mandatory sentences by allowing judges to use more discretion in some cases. It would also reduce the mandatory life sentence for a third drug-trafficking offense.

2. Mental health spending and reform. There is next to zero chance that Congress will do anything more on gun control while Obama is in office, but there is a possibility for action this year on spending measures and other programs to address serious mental health problems that sometimes lead to shootings and other violent acts.

After years of GOP insistence that mental health spending and reforms were needed more than tougher gun control laws to prevent mass killings, Obama has challenged Republicans “to put your money where your mouth is” and approve $500 million of new spending to increase access to mental health care and to make mental health information more readily available for conducting background checks for gun purchases. Prominent Senate and House Republicans are also pushing for action this year on bills to improve and better target mental health programs.

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3. Cancer research. Obama last night called for an all-out, government-backed campaign to find a cure for cancer, in a bold gesture to Vice President Joe Biden, whose 46-year-old son, Beau Biden, died of brain cancer last May. Biden has been advocating a government war on cancer akin to Kennedy’s to putting a man on the Moon. “Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done,” Obama said, drawing thunderous applause from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Experts say that a single approach to curing cancer isn’t going to work because of the broad range of cancers that each present daunting challenges to researchers, as The Washington Post noted. However, some top cancer specialists agree on several ideas that could push the boundaries of research and therapy for the 1.7 million people diagnosed each year. One is to create a huge data base of diagnostic and treatment information.

Congress last month approved a $2 billion, 6.6-percent increase in funding of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)  as part of the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending package, bringing NIH’s  total funding level up to $32 billion.  Obama suggested that Congress might go the extra step this year by adding substantially more for cancer research, and said that he is putting Biden in charge of the “Mission Control” of the new research initiative..

4. Trade agreement. After nearly five years of tough bargaining, 12 Pacific Rim states including the United States have finalized the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement that encompasses 40 percent of the global economy and has the potential to radically alter the rules of the road for international trade. The TPP marks a milestone for Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, and the president is determined to win final authority from the Senate before he leaves office. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) is a staunch backer of the trade agreement.

The deal is highly controversial among liberal Democrats, labor groups, some business groups and some conservatives. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said he would prefer to put off action on the agreement until after the November election. Obama is already facing a slim margin of support in each chamber. And Republicans who granted the administration fast-track authority on trade deals have indicated their support didn’t mean automatic passage for the TPP. “I think it would be a big mistake to send it up before the election,” McConnell said.

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But Obama indicated Tuesday night he would not give up the fight to win approval of the treaty before he leaves office. And as he demonstrated last year in moving the highly controversial Iran nuclear agreement through Congress, Obama can still get his way on important policy issues. “You want to show our strength in this century?” he said last night. “Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it.”

5. Addressing poverty. A potential wild card this year is Ryan’s intense interest in combatting poverty, which led him to stage a Kemp Foundation poverty summit in Columbia, S.C., last weekend that drew many of the 2016 Republican presidential contenders – though not Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. During his speech Tusday night, Obama acknowledged the speaker’s “interest in tackling poverty” and said he would “welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support.”

“That was a particularly interesting theme in the speech, including the nod to Ryan on poverty,” Ornstein, the congressional scholar, said.

While Ryan and Obama share a strong interest in the topic, the problem is that the two politicians take very different approaches to trying to alleviate poverty. Ryan talks about educational reform but also trying to break up what he calls the “poverty-industrial complex” -- a wide array of costly social services and health care benefits. Ryan would like to see many of those programs converted to federal block grants and leave it to the states to run them. Obama, by contrast, wants to preserve and build on many of those programs. One possible area of agreement is expanding the earned income tax credit for low-income workers without children.

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“Obviously the president is not going to agree to massive block grants for anti-poverty programs,” said William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. “But are there narrower possible agreements? I suspect so.”