The Purpose of Political Capital: Three Agenda Items for Obama

We can no longer argue Obama is trapped by Bush's mistakes, says Rinku Sen. He's slain the enemy and now it's time to clean up the mess at home.

By Rinku Sen May 05, 2011

There’s a popular argument about why President Obama rarely acts like candidate Obama sounded: He’s trapped by George W. Bush’s mistakes and, well, a black man can only push the country so far. Regardless of whether these excuses were ever valid, killing off Public Enemy Number One ought to put them both to rest.

That action, in addition to providing whatever comfort it might to those who lost family and friends on September 11, has entirely reset the political board. Both substantively and politically, killing Bin Laden releases Obama from Bush’s violence-driven approach to security. Republicans and their surrogates can no longer claim with any real credibility that Obama "pals around with terrorists." And in any case, the past week’s events–Obama’s release of his long-form birth certificate and his thrashing of Donald Trump, at a point when he clearly knew the Bin Laden operation was in process–shows that our president is fully capable of masterful political strategy.

The president now has the opportunity to redirect the last decade’s trajectory by resetting national priorities. This moment will not come again, and struggling Americans are still waiting for Obama to make good on his promise of change. One enormous obstacle that stood in his way no longer does: an unwinnable "war on terror" that created a budget sinkhole with more than $1 trillion spent in 10 years.

Now is the time to end these wars and refocus our energy and resources on the domestic issues that are causing so much misery in the lives of U.S. residents. With his detractors grasping at chewed up straws, here are the three things that Obama should ram through Congress over the coming year.

1. Immigration reform, along with an end to racial profiling of Muslims, South Asians and Arabs.

Immigration policy has been held hostage to September 11 for a decade. Before 9/11, Bush instructed the White House domestic policy staff to work out a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented people living with the results of an outdated and broken immigration system. After 9/11, Republican communications strategist Frank Luntz wrote a memo saying that the words "illegal immigrant" would conjure up a link to terrorism and negate support for legalization, and he turned out to be correct. Before 9/11 we had the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and now we have Immigration and Customs Enforcement within the Department of Homeland Security. In these ten years, conservatives and liberals alike have alienated and squandered one of the country’s greatest assets because they can’t figure out how to keep terrorists out of the country without ending the great tradition of immigration.

Last week, DHS ended, finally, the ineffective and highly charged special registration program for Muslim immigrants. It had been just one example of the official policy of racial profiling that fuels Islamaphobia in our country. Since he took office, Obama has stalled on immigration, insisting that reform cannot move without Republican support. Now he needs to acknowledge out loud that immigration and terrorism are not the same thing, and use his capital to lean on Republicans and Democrats alike to finally bring our immigration policy into the 21st century.

2. Spending to create jobs.

This week, Congress returned from its recess to resume its loaded debate over the budget and deficit. Obama should take this opportunity to finally change the frame of that discussion. He should leave behind all talk of deficits and lead Washington in passing a budget that eases the terrible pain of this recession. That budget should include some serious cuts to the military coffers, with that money redirected to building an adequate safety net and investing in the things that stimulate the economy and generate jobs.

This is the moment for green jobs legislation to make a reappearance, as well as a public works program that could change the unemployment numbers in a serious way. The supposed recovery has been jobless, which makes it a recovery for Wall Street alone. In communities of color, the long term unemployment rate can only be changed by public sector jobs that have some lasting power. For example, our friends at the National Domestic Workers Alliance have a good idea to create three million new jobs for home care workers who can help baby boomers have a happy last phase of life.

So, no more talk from Obama that reinforces conservative frames about how we have to cut vital services in order to cut the debt. Instead, let’s see a robust federal budget with real public services built into it.

3. Make corporations pay.

It’s time for big businesses to share fairly in the sacrifices required to protect the "American way of life" by actually paying their taxes, just like everyone else. The Government Accountability Office–that’s the federal government’s internal analyst–found in 2008 that 55 percent of U.S. companies paid no federal income tax in at least one out of the seven years covered by the study. We have high tax rates, but also a ton of shelters, breaks and subsidies that effectively enable corporations to live tax free.

Two months ago, the New York Times reported that General Electric not only paid no taxes at all in 2010, but in fact got a $3.2 billion tax benefit. GE manages this in part with "innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore." Doesn’t sound very patriotic to me. Ironically, this means that undocumented immigrants are actually paying more taxes than GE. That’s the kind of irony that isn’t good for a country’s soul. This is the moment when Barack Obama can not only point this perverse fact out, but also change it.

Some people will deny that killing Bin Laden gives Obama renewed credibility and popularity, asserting that the birther madness will continue even after the certificate release and bad-guy obliteration.

There’s no question that Obama continues to face challenges that no white president ever has or ever will. But he has as much credibility now as he is ever going to have among sane people, and he can gain more by simply claiming the results he has generated. It’s time for those of us who have been waiting for fulfillment of campaign promises to push hard for their completion, while the feeling of unity is relatively fresh and the danger of losing low.