The biggest policy question will be how to legalize 11 million undocumented people in a way that won’t be seen as unfair to those who are waiting to become citizens legally. The biggest political question is how Republicans will handle the issue. GOP voters slammed Republican lawmakers for negotiating a legalization plan five years ago. Some lost their seats. In the wake of Romney’s loss, GOP operatives are emphasizing the party’s need to broaden its appeal to minorities, particularly Hispanics. But the calculus for congressional Republicans is somewhat different. Incumbents have to worry about whether a move to the center could leave them vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right. They will be looking only as far as 2014, not 2016.
Obama can’t rely on partisan maneuvers in Congress the way he did to pass health care reform, because some conservative Democrats are squeamish on immigration. He will need to offer compromises to Republicans, which could come in the form of new guest-worker programs or an end to open sponsorship rights for U.S. citizens to invite foreign family members into the country.
Still, Obama will need to make a better show of trying than he did in his first term. Back in 2008, he said that immigration was a top priority. Hispanics turned out in droves to help him win, and then nothing happened. Earlier this year, he created a temporary deferral program for illegal youth to shield them from deportation, but that is hardly the kind of sweeping change that Latinos and other Democrats are seeking.
“We are in a different position to demand and ask—and expect—a different delivery from President Obama,” says Lorella Praeli, an undocumented activist for United We Dream, a youth-led immigration-reform advocacy group. “The message is clear: freedom for 11 million.”
By Fawn Johnson
The president spent the past year setting up the education agenda for his second term. Now all he has to do is put the strategy in motion. It has three parts—access to college; waivers for state public-school systems; and early-childhood development.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan will stay in his Cabinet post to guide the existing department programs to the finish line. That means the incentives the administration now dangles in front of states to create teacher evaluations, to rework their student assessments, or to turn around failing schools will continue. “I’m a big believer in carrots rather than sticks,” Duncan told a group of educators in September.
Among Cabinet members, Duncan has an outsized influence on domestic policy. White House officials view the Education Department’s Race to the Top competitive grant program as one of the most successful ways the administration can encourage states to change policies without having to pony up lots of federal dollars. Of course, the $100 billion for education from the economic-stimulus package will not be available this time around. The administration has focused the last of the Race to the Top money from 2009 on early-childhood programs.
The Education Department’s waivers for No Child Left Behind are the best carrots available to Obama for enticing states to close failing schools and make teachers and principals more accountable for student achievement. Without the waivers, most states will face penalties for failing to meet outdated benchmarks. Because Congress has been unable to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, the administration’s waiver program is its only way out. The waiver process has gone smoothly since Duncan rolled it out last year, but the Education Department’s total control over how and when states get them has led to inevitable grumbling that the administration could delay applications for political reasons.
Meanwhile, Obama will likely devote his bully pulpit to higher education. The president wants the United States to again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, and to do that he will need to lean on higher-education institutions to keep their tuition down and their enrollments up. Ironically, neither Congress nor the White House can do much to lower tuition, because most federal college aid goes directly to students. Still, the higher-education law authorizing many student-aid programs expires next year, which will give Congress the opportunity to tinker with the formulas and the White House the chance to talk about it.
By Fawn Johnson
On transportation, Obama can plan on starting his second term the same way he began his first. Then, as now, the funding crisis for the nation’s highways was a few years off but approaching fast. And policymakers still don’t have a strategy for what to do when the current highway authority expires in 2014.
Last year, Congress and the administration managed to put off the toughest decisions about how to finance the nation’s roads and bridges when they passed a mini-highway bill to keep funding at current levels for two years. (Highway bills traditionally last for five years.) The problems that befuddled them then have not gone away. The 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax cannot keep up with the cost of road maintenance, but too many members don’t want to raise it. A five-year measure costs at least $300 billion, a frightening price tag in an age of austerity. Meanwhile, none of the more sophisticated policy ideas for reworking the system—an infrastructure bank, a plan to replace the gas tax with driver payments based on vehicle mileage—has left the starting block.