Obama staying hands-off on key legislative issues
American Letter: Change can happen, but mainly when Obama is not personally involved
President Barack Obama is greeted at the Presidential Palace in Dakar, Senegal, recently. Photograph: Gary Cameron/Reuters
US president Barack Obama saw progress in Washington this week on three items on the wishlist of legislative changes planned for his second term: the fight against climate change; equal rights for gay and lesbian couples; and the overhaul of immigration laws to legalise 11 million illegal immigrants.
Obama’s administration wants to see how the application of federal benefits for gay couples can be extended from the 13 states and the district of Columbia where same-sex marriages are permitted to the entire country following Wednesday’s two supreme court rulings on gay marriage cases.
Similarly, the president plans to direct changes from Washington that will allow the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to negotiate with individual states to limit carbon dioxide pollution from power plants.
Rather than take on the issue himself, Obama has left responsibility for the biggest changes in immigration laws in more than a quarter of a century in the hands of politicians on Capitol Hill. This has proved fruitful so far following the Senate’s 68 to 32 vote on Thursday, passing the bipartisan legislation on to House of Representatives.
These three issues featured prominently in Obama’s state-of-the-union address four months ago but until last week gay rights and immigration were the only two issues that seemed to be in the president’s second-term in tray. Even then, the work was being done elsewhere, not in the White House.
Gay marriage was in the hands of the supreme court as the judges weighed arguments on California’s “Proposition 8” ban on same-sex marriage and a constitutional challenge to the Defence of Marriage Act.
A cross-party group of eight senators had been working behind the scenes to craft an immigration Bill that appeased everyone. The main reason why it has curried favour so far is that it is in the interests of Republicans to fix the archaic immigration laws to win back the Hispanic voters who turned against the party in such large numbers in last year’s presidential race.
Obama chose Georgetown University in Washington as the venue to lay down his latest policy marker, this time on combating climate change. He followed through on his state-of-the-union promise that he would act alone if Congress didn’t by taking executive action.
“As a president, as a father and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act. I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he said, mopping his brow at an outdoor podium in the heat of the US capital.
He dismissed those who deny that man is responsible for climate change: “Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safe but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.”
Obama’s determination on the issue must be seen in the light of his first-term failure to pass a market-based approach to controlling carbon emissions with his “cap-and-trade” Bill.
In a sign of the opposition he faces on Capitol Hill and in an attempt to bypass Congress, Obama plans to use the Clean Air Act, passed in 1970 by Richard Nixon, to issue executive orders via the EPA to set limits for the first time on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 2015. The plants are the source of a third of all such emissions.
The plan also involves increasing wind and solar energy production, better fuel economy in commercial vehicles, and preparing communities to deal with higher temperatures.
The president also gave rare insight into the Keystone XL, the proposed pipeline carrying oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico that has pitted environmental activists against the energy industry. Obama said his administration would prevent the project unless it could be proven that the pipeline would “not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution”.
Republicans in Congress, as well as Democrats from the big coal-producing states, attacked the plan, describing it as a “war on coal” and a “war on jobs”. The fossil-fuel industry has powerful friends on Capitol Hill so the opposition to it may be as strong as the opposition to equality for same-sex marriage and changes to immigration laws.
As both those issues have shown, change can happen, but primarily when Obama is not personally involved, as during the ill-fated gun control measures.