An Ambitious Foreign Policy Agenda for the First Hundred Days

Nov 13, 2012Leslie Bull

As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series, suggestions for how Obama can ramp up his foreign policy agenda.

As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series, suggestions for how Obama can ramp up his foreign policy agenda.

Now that President Obama has officially been re-elected to a second term as the 44th president of the United States, it is time to put the campaign behind us and think about what comes next. A president’s first 100 days is traditionally the time during which he is most able to push through new legislation, as his power and influence are at a post-election peak. So what should Obama do with this period of opportunity? This is a large and multi-faceted question, but one area of the president’s agenda must be foreign policy. I am a member of the Millennial generation who is deeply invested in the direction our foreign policy takes and believe the issues listed below are especially important to those of us who will be inheriting the world that President Obama is shaping for us.

  • First, and possibly most obviously, President Obama will have to choose a new Secretary of State. Along with many other members of his administration, Hillary Clinton made it clear long ago that she will be stepping down for President Obama’s second term. The forerunners for possible replacements include John Kerry (whose Senate seat Democrats are no longer worried about losing after unexpected gains in the election) and Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. (who, although capable, has recently been tainted by her association with the administration’s initially false accounts of the attack in Benghazi, Libya.) Whoever he chooses, the new Secretary of State should be nominated as soon as possible to ensure that there is no gap in leadership.
  • Early on, it is crucial that he figure out how tough a stance to take on China. While both candidates competed to be perceived as more hawkish toward China on the campaign trial, experts expect more moderate action than campaign rhetoric would have had us believe. I would like to see a continuation of the perhaps frustrating but smart policy of maintaining a balancing act between curbing China’s problematic behavior (by continuing to bring trade cases against it when it violates free trade agreements), developing good relations with the new Chinese government set to take over soon, and reassuring our allies in the region that although the U.S. must work with China, we are not abandoning them. At this time, China and the U.S. are simply too important to one another’s well being for either to develop an overly antagonistic position unless it becomes absolutely necessary.
  • He must figure out under what circumstances we would intervene militarily to help defend the Syrian people. Neither candidate seriously considered this possibility on the campaign trail. But Foreign Policy predicts this position is likely to be severely tested. As refugee flows increase, atrocities multiply, extremist groups gain traction, and the civil war spills over into neighboring states, Americans may want more decisive action from their leaders.
  • President Obama must also re-commit to development assistance. While traditional development aid certainly has its problems, working to improve the lives of those living in developing countries is one area in which the U.S. is seen as a global leader. Now that President Obama has safely been elected to a second term, the development community believes that he has the chance to be ‘bolder’ on foreign aid. Initiatives to do this would include re-committing to USAID Forward, implementing the agency’s broad reform agenda, defending poverty and humanitarian accounts from budget cuts, expanding the reach of the Feed the Future program to support more smallholder farmers, and continuing the Global Health Initiative. I would also recommend increasing/improving foreign aid to Afghanistan as we further withdraw from a nation that continues to be deeply troubled. Using the enthusiasm of the first 100 days might allow President Obama to push through actions like these when they might otherwise be blocked or pushed aside as unimportant. Even if spending concerns constrain the president’s ability to increase development assistance, he can still improve the efficacy of such programs by focusing on reform instead of expansion.
  • Another issue that President Obama mentioned on the campaign trail, in his acceptance speech, and afterward is the need to work on ending America’s dependence on foreign oil. The fact that he has so frequently brought up this issue means that he has created the expectation that he will deal with it soon. Given that he has talked about the bipartisan nature of the issue, a good place to start would be to reach out to Republicans on the issue during the unprecedented period of post-election goodwill between the two parties (as evidenced by the unusually conciliatory and cooperative language coming out of Republican congressional leaders). We might also see legislation to further cut subsidies for oil companies and investment in clean energy alternatives (mostly as a publicity-generating measure) in order to make it clear that this is an issue President Obama actually plans to tackle during his second term.
  • Start garnering political support for a negotiated solution for Iran’s nuclear program and develop the process and substance for an agreement that restrains it. Given that Iran is unlikely to give us a reason for military intervention in the next 100 days, there is still room for diplomacy, but U.S. unilateral action will not have nearly as strong an impact as internationally supported action will. Given how overwhelmingly in favor of President Obama our international allies were during the election, now is a good time to leverage their post-election relief into unprecedented coordination on Iran and setting a concrete agenda for limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Although this is certainly not an exhaustive list, it is enough to show that President Obama needs to do a lot of tone-setting on foreign policy in the beginning of his second term. At a very general level, the president needs to figure out how hawkish a foreign policy he wants to pursue. He certainly doesn’t want to be perceived as weak, but neither would it be prudent to be overly aggressive when we have so many troubles at home. Hopefully President Obama will use his first 100 days to provide clarity about where he stands on these pressing foreign policy issues. However, he shouldn’t forget that now may be the time he is most able to let his inner progressive off the leash and incorporate that into the foreign policy tone he chooses to set.

Leslie Bull is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow in Defense and Diplomacy and a senior political science major at Yale University.


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Showing Leadership By Putting Graduates to Work

Nov 13, 2012Joshua McKinney

As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series, a recognition of the need to address student debt levels and unemployed graduates.

As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series, a recognition of the need to address student debt levels and unemployed graduates.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was faced with a widespread catastrophe. The Depression had given birth to shattering rates of unemployment, bank failures, and a widespread loss of confidence in government. From the start, FDR knew that what the people needed most was reassurance that under his leadership, they could weather the storm. In his inaugural address on a gloomy March morning, FDR said, "This nation asks for action, and action now. Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require." Soon thereafter, he set a high standard for new presidents during his first 100 days, launching a raft of New Deal reforms over his first three months in office.

With a laundry list of issues and a divided congress, President Obama faces hurdles in acting and acting quickly. In the three months following his second inauguration ceremony, his actions need to provide the country with reassurance that this ship is moving in the right direction under his leadership. Perhaps his most important task will be addressing this through the lens of education policy.

Education has long been the primary driver of upward mobility in America, a fact that is truer now than ever before. Yet as the demands on schools to impart 21st century skills have increased, school quality has not kept pace across the country, resulting in an ever-widening achievement gap. Our primary and secondary schools are tested to death but provide little to no growth in our national education numbers. According to NPR’s Claudio Sanchez, “the class of 2012 scored the lowest average SAT reading scores since 1972” while also managing to take a nine-point dive in writing. The only area where we saw a national improvement was in math, where it stands only five points higher than 40 years ago. Overall, College Board, which commissions the SAT, reports that six in ten college students are not ready for college work. Students are now faced with the decision to enter college unprepared or not enter college at all. The ACT reported even more dismal numbers: only a quarter of the high schoolers who took the test were college ready.

What comes of those students who enter into college unprepared? According to Complete College America, about 41 percent of the high school graduates who enter college are required to take remedial courses when they start college. Even more alarming is that two-thirds of these students fail to earn their degree in six years, some accumulating unreasonably high amounts of college loan debt.

What happens to the students who pass on college altogether? Armed with a high school diploma and little to no marketable skills, these students all to often face unemployment.

Is graduating college in four years the remedy, as many proclaim? It helps, but many college students are unemployed as well. The common problem for all three sets of students is the lack of skills – a problem which has also become a crisis in America.

To expect President Obama and Sec. Duncan to address every aspect of the system as a whole within the first hundred days is unreasonable. We can, however, expect them to address the increasingly alarming student loan bubble and the skills crisis.

Since 1978, average college tuition has skyrocketed by over 900 percent, while grants and scholarships continue to be slashed and only given to a select group of students. The result? Students are forced to mortgage their futures with student loan debt. This, accompanied with dismal job numbers for college graduates, has many worried that graduates will default on their loans, causing the bubble to burst and result in seismic shocks through every facet of American life. It is paramount that this bubble be addressed by the national government or the effects could cripple the already fragile economy.

One way to address this would be to get more young people to work. This could be done by revitalizing our skills training across the nation and investing in current skills training organizations such as yearup. If the president uses this approach, he can simultaneously address the skills crisis and the student loan debt crisis. But this project is more complex than simply increasing funding. It would have to begin with a role change for many of the community colleges around the nation. This is not to call for them to become full-fledged technical schools, nor should they carry identical curriculums to that of four-year institutions. They should, however, increase the number of classes available for training local people in the skills they need to do the jobs available in the area around them. Since the budgets of many community colleges are strained already, President Obama could provide tax incentives to companies that send trained workers to teach classes at their surrounding community colleges. This is imperfect in many ways, but could very well work if the nuances are worked out. 

President Obama has 100 days to reassure the people that his leadership will move this country in the right direction, just as FDR did in 1933. If he can solve the student loan debt bubble while addressing the skills crisis, he will send a solid signal to the American people that this country is really moving forward. 

Joshua Mckinney is the Senior Fellow in Education Policy for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a political science and philosophy double major at Morehouse College.


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Where Sandy Meets the Election: Tackling Climate Change in a Second Term

Nov 13, 2012Hannah Locke

As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series,

When Hurricane Sandy decimated the East Coast, laying waste to coastal towns, flooding main streets, and shutting down power for 8 million people, the U.S.’s 40-year inaction on climate change slapped us in the face. If there was ever a wake-up call, this is it. We can no longer afford to argue whether or not global climate change will affect us. It can, it will, and it already has.

As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series,

When Hurricane Sandy decimated the East Coast, laying waste to coastal towns, flooding main streets, and shutting down power for 8 million people, the U.S.’s 40-year inaction on climate change slapped us in the face. If there was ever a wake-up call, this is it. We can no longer afford to argue whether or not global climate change will affect us. It can, it will, and it already has.

With our climate at a crossroads, I call upon newly re-elected President Obama to take necessary, bold action. We must prepare ourselves for the effects of the climate change we’ve already committed and, most importantly, we must revolutionize the way we operate. The Millennial generation will not accept the status quo, and we will not watch the newly re-elected Congress and president squander the viability of our future resources. We demand that our future not be short-changed for the political profits of today.

Our wealth as a nation blinded us to the destabilization already suffered by the majority of the world. We are no longer exempt—our tax base won’t stop the rising seas, our fortunes won’t halt the positive feedback cycles undermining our agricultural, aquacultural, and economic systems.

But our collective action can. We must, as a nation, commit to reinvesting our time, energy, and financial resources in building an economy that does not sacrifice the ecological stability of the planet. This means admitting that the dinosaur industries that currently dominate our economy aren’t sustainable economically, socially, or environmentally. This means that we must not fear the enormity of the task at hand—we need not only to overhaul our fossil fuel addiction, but also to challenge our Western perceptions of development.

This is not to say we are powerless. We remain the most innovative, well-funded, and resource-rich country in the world. We possess in our communities leaders who envision an equitable future and a private sector with all of the inventive thinking to construct efficient ways of delivering clean energy. We have bountiful prairies, mountains, watersheds, and coastal shores that, if protected and managed properly, could easily provide for the country.

Here are the first steps President Obama can take to a pragmatic, equitable future:

1) Dismantle inequitable subsidies: Oil, coal, and corn subsidies mean that market prices reflect a higher supply than is realistic. Subsidies also fuel colossally inefficient systems that waste precious natural resources and disconnect the consumer from the producer. Stripping subsidies away from large industries will provide incentives both in the private sector (in the research and development of cleaner, more reliable forms of energy and agriculture) and in the consumer households (by encouraging efficiency and empowering consumer choice). Taxpayer money, currently used for subsidizing these industries may be used to finance grid overhaul, public education programs, retrofitting efforts in older cities, off-shore wind farms, etc. President Obama’s administration should work with legislative allies to deconstruct antiquated subsidies in order to better invest in an economy of the future.

2) Reinvest in cities and public infrastructure: By reinvesting in efficient public transport and inner-city education programs, as well as restructuring tax and utility systems to reward high-density communities, cities could become beacons of sustainability. The strongest model of sustainability promotes environmental, social, and economic sustainability equally—we must be careful not to disenfranchise current communities for the sake of old models of environmentalism. Ground-up, neighborhood-based movements utilizing community strengths to tackle community weaknesses combat social and environmental inequities. Urban agriculture, watershed management, and diverse economies are proven steps in the movement toward sustainable cities. President Obama must support energy policies and infrastructure reform that would allow for state and local governments to exercise creativity and innovation.

3) Create jobs through sustainable energy systems: Climate change has been wrongly, and successfully, framed as a choice between the abstract “environment” and the concrete impact of the “economy.” But by reinvesting in long-term, renewable, clean energy (wind, geothermal, sun, cellulosic ethanol), the United States can create high-paying, steady employment while reducing the environmental health costs commonly associated with fossil fuel industries. Why remove a mountain for minimal amounts of coal at the high cost of community health when you can install wind turbines, protect the water, air, and land of the local community, and promote long-term job stability?

4) Ban the XL Keystone Pipeline: Allison Rich investigated the claims of the pipeline’s proponents and found that the proposed project makes no sense economically, socially, or environmentally. None of the profits would stay here. The construction jobs are menial and short-term, a band-aid economic solution to a country that needs economic surgery. We’d get all the pollution but not a drop of the profits.

5) Introduce cap and trade legislation to regulate greenhouse gases: A market of transferable pollution permits with expiration dates would distribute a limited amount of permits (potentially through lottery or auction). The number of permits would originally be determined not by current use, but by what the acceptable amount of pollution is that proves least disruptive. In our case, the number of permits would need to be radically low—I suggest a moderate amount at first, allowing approximately 60 percent of current amount of GHG pollution, with expiration dates. The private sector would be forced to invest in research and development of more efficient, less wasteful practices, and dinosaur industries (those that could not survive without cheap fossil fuels) would give way to more sustainable consumption patterns.

6) Assume responsibility: In order for any of these crucial steps to be taken, we must first recognize the following: The science is indisputable. Hurricane Sandy is only the beginning. As a resource-rich and wealthy country, we’ve been living in a falsely cushioned world. Per capita, we are the most impactful society on this planet. It is our responsibility to quit our selfish behavior. The president should make a public statement regarding not only our disproportionate role in catalyzing climate change, but also our determination to become a more environmentally equitable country.

We’ve waited long enough. We’ve elected you, Mr. President. Now let’s get to work.

Hannah Locke is the Senior Fellow in Energy & the Environment for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Networkn and a senior environmental studies and biological sciences double major at Goucher College.


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The Fight for Health Care Reform Isn't Over Yet

Nov 13, 2012Rahul Rekhi

As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series, a call for President Obama to finish the health care overhaul he began with the Affordable Care Act.

As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series, a call for President Obama to finish the health care overhaul he began with the Affordable Care Act.

While the principle focus of this year’s presidential campaign was clearly the economy, the election carried more profound implications for the future of American health care then any other area of policy. The choice was clear: would we see the reaffirmation of the Affordable Care Act and with that, an opportunity for its provisions to be phased in at last? Or would we see a rapid repeal and systemic overhaul under the ascendant Romney administration? With the reelection of President Obama, the signature health care legislation of his first term is secure. But to truly reform our health care system, he still has much more work to do in his second term.

Because of President Obama’s historic win, he will be able to fully implement provisions that extend health coverage to over 30 million Americans, end denial of care on the basis of pre-existing conditions, and allow young Americans nationwide to remain covered while continuing their education. But despite this leap forward, significant challenges to our health care system remain. Though the Affordable Care Act tackled the coverage problem, concerns about ever-rising health care costs--and the concomitant budgetary pressures--remain at the forefront. Moreover, debates about end-of-life care, prevention, and the proper role of medical technology in our health care system remain unresolved.

Some of these health policy concerns will take years to tackle. Others must necessarily extend beyond even President Obama’s term limit. But there should be a particular focus on issues regarding health science and technology that we must tackle in the first 100 days, while the electoral mandate remains clear.

The consensus among health economists of all stripes is clear: medical technology is the single most significant driver of rising health care costs in America. These advancements, while making significant gains in extending our lifespans and improving the quality of life for the U.S., simultaneously impose significant cost burdens and threaten the fiscal sustainability of our health care system. The Affordable Care Act takes steps to address this concern, most notably by funding so-called “comparative effectiveness research,” a systematic means of assessing the therapeutic efficacy of clinical treatments and weeding out those that exhibit no health benefits despite their substantial costs. This isn’t rationing—it’s rational.

However, due to political pressures, “Obamacare” contained no provision or mechanism for the results of such comparative effectiveness research to be implemented in a meaningful way. Even the one model that it did call for—the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a “Federal Reserve” of medicine—has been effectively neutered by congressional officials and only served an advisory role. If we are to truly and systematically address the cost burdens of health technology in a meaningful way, what we need is a form of health technology assessment, such as the one pioneered by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in the United Kingdom. Until then, we will have a patchwork policy at best, and a downright nonexistent one at worst.

Realizing the benefits of these technologies will also necessitate a regulatory overhaul. Despite (occasional?) failures and controversies, the Food and Drug Administration deserves great acclaim for helping to ensure the safety of the American patient for the last century. But the critical nature of this mandate does not obviate the benefits that could be derived from a deep overhaul of the FDA approval process. For instance, there is ample opportunity to bring the FDA into the 21st century, with opportunities to authorize statistical modeling techniques that allow for smaller, leaner, and quicker clinical trials guidelines, and by mandating that the results of all drug trails be published online. These are measures with potentially broad bipartisan support.

Policy has also fallen short in the development of these technologies. Case in point: funding for the National Institutes of Health has largely remained flat in recent years, even under the Obama administration. Yet the importance of biomedical research in maintaining America’s edge in innovation cannot be overstated. It’s no coincidence that over half of the Nobel Laureates in medicine have come from within our borders; it is this edge on health science and technology that has allowed life-saving treatments such as statins, angioplasty, and MRIs into the clinic. As other nations begin to ramp up their investments in biomedical research, it is critical that the U.S. not lose its position of global leadership.

These health policy areas represent means for the president to reaffirm his vision for our health care system. Admittedly, with a looming fiscal cliff, persistently high unemployment, and issues of energy and immigration beginning to enter the national spotlight, turning back to health care may carry with it great political risk. However, while the Affordable Care Act was initially highly polarizing and contentious across the electorate, there is emerging evidence that as its provisions are phased in, support among Americans is growing—and fast. Reaching across the aisle early with these bipartisan policies to further advance our nation’s health care can cement the president’s principle legacy, setting the tone for another transformative term. Ultimately, their impacts will extend well beyond the next 100 days or even the next two years, for the path to a truly 21st century health care system lies ahead.

Rahul Rekhi is a student at Rice University and the Senior Fellow in Health Care Policy for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.


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The Green Side of the Fiscal Cliff

Nov 13, 2012Wilson Parker

As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series, a call to tackle the budget and climate change at the same time.

As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series, a call to tackle the budget and climate change at the same time.

On last Tuesday night, a triumphant President Obama thanked supporters in Chicago. “We know in our hearts,” he said, “that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come.” But as the elation of the moment subsided, many supporters undoubtedly began to ask a simple question: how? What is President Obama going to do in the next four years to move “the task of perfecting our union” forward?

For supporters who were listening closely, the text of his speech contained some answers to that question. In the next two months, President Obama and Congress will face the automatic series of spending cuts and tax increases that has been dubbed the “fiscal cliff,” a sudden package of austerity that, according to a report from Congressional Budget Office, is likely to send us into a double dip recession, causing GDP growth to plummet to -0.5 percent and sending unemployment over 9 percent.

In perhaps the most important line of his speech – “We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet” – President Obama gave us some clue as to how he intends to avert the fiscal cliff and articulated his administration’s greatest challenges and ambitions. With these words, Obama may be tacitly endorsing an idea that has been floating around in DC policy circles for some time: addressing the fiscal cliff by, among other things, implementing a carbon tax.

Carbon pricing schemes have been wildly popular among progressive policy experts for a long time. For instance, the Center for American Progress included such a scheme in a 2007 report entitled “Capturing the Energy Opportunity,” which was published as part of an economic plan for the next administration. The report concluded that “once businesses have to factor the cost of emitting CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) into their bottom lines, the power of the marketplace will start to push toward efficiency, low-carbon fuels, [and] renewable energy.” (“The Price is Right” also discusses the budgetary and economic effects of carbon pricing.) But a carbon price is finally beginning to enjoy support on both sides of the aisle. Even Grover Norquist is now amenable to a carbon tax in lieu of letting income tax cuts expireIn a brilliant summary of this idea, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein writes:

Let’s say you believe there is a 20 percent chance that global warming is anything other than a hoax. In that case, you are indifferent to carbon, with only a slight concern that the stuff might be catastrophic. But you are not indifferent to work and income, which everyone wants more of. So given a choice between taxing work and income on one hand, or taxing carbon on the other, the preference is clear: Tax carbon, especially as part of a deal to lower overall tax rates.

Some conservative groups and economists have already made this argument. Martin Feldstein, who was the top economist in Ronald Reagan’s administration, proposed a carbon tax in the Wall Street Journal back in 1992. When the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, had to submit a deficit-reduction plan as part of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s 2011 Fiscal Summit Solutions Initiative, the four scholars in charge of the project included a $26-per-ton carbon tax in order “to address environmental concerns in a more market-friendly manner.” Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economist who advises Mitt Romney’s campaign team, has written that there is “broad consensus” among wonks for a global carbon tax.

That’s what makes this idea so exciting. Klein described this idea as “just a dream,” but now that the president has identified debt and global warming as top priorities – and, tellingly, mentioned them together in the same sentence – this dream is that much closer to becoming a reality. There are still many, many obstacles to a plan like this being adopted. But with the reelection of the president, progressives who hope for action on climate change and the debt now have reason for some cautious optimism.

In addition to debt and climate change, President Obama also identified the equally damaging but far more insidious problem of being “weakened by income inequality.” As challenging as climate change and the national debt are, policy solutions are available: if you want a balanced budget, raise taxes and/or cut spending (but not in a recession!); if you want less climate change, emit less carbon by creating a disincentive. Addressing income inequality, however, requires having a serious conversation about the role of government in our society and, indeed, the nature of our society itself. In a fantastic op-ed for the New York Times, Chrystia Freeland explains what could happen in a society that does not address severe income inequality: “the 1 percent pulls away from everyone else and pursues an economic, political and social agenda that will increase that gap even further — ultimately destroying the open system that made America rich and allowed its 1 percent to thrive in the first place.”

President Obama has already made some progress, most notably by repairing the gaping hole in our social safety net that allowed more than 40 million Americans to go without health insurance. In his speech and on the campaign trail, he has signaled that he is willing to fight for better schools for children of all backgrounds and a tax code that asks the wealthy to pay their fair share. But those commitments have yet to be turned from rhetoric into reality.

Ultimately, Barack Obama will be remembered as a good president if he can solve our nation’s obvious problems: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the lack of access to affordable healthcare, climate change, and the national debt. But he will be remembered as a great president if, like his forebears Franklin Roosevelt and (yes) Ronald Reagan, his ideas succeed in transforming and reforming the role government plays in our society.

Wilson Parker is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's chapter at UNC Chapel Hill, where he is studying economics. He serves as the co-director of the chapter's Economic Policy Center.


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