Obama’s Second-Term Priorities Are Not Public’s

Whereas Americans care about jobs, their president is working on climate change and gun control.

President Barack Obama talks with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on the patio outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 1
President Barack Obama talks with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on the patio outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 1 (White House/Pete Souza)

Whereas the American public is still foremost concerned about the economy and employment, despite modest improvements in both, President Barack Obama seems more concerned about climate change, gun control and immigration reform. If the Democrat continues to emphasize these issues, he risks playing into opposition Republicans’ hands who have long argued that he’s “out-of-touch” with regular Americans.

In January, when Obama began his second term, the Pew Research Center found that vast majorities of Americans believe entitlement and tax reform, jobs and health care costs should be the government’s priorities. Climate change, gun and immigration laws got less than 40 percent each.

“Yet six months later, the public’s nonpriorities look like the entirety of the White House’s second-term agenda,” wrote Ross Douthat, a conservative, in The New York Times on Saturday.

The president’s failed push for background checks has given way to an ongoing push for immigration reform and the administration is reportedly planning a sweeping regulatory push on carbon emissions this summer. Meanwhile, nobody expects much action on the issues that Americans actually wanted Washington to focus on: tax and entitlement reform have been backburnered and the plight of the unemployed seems to have dropped off the DC radar screen entirely.

The president’s priorities may be popular among liberal East Coast elites but outside those circles, argued Douthat, “the timing of their elevation looks at best peculiar.”

While global warming has fallen well short of projections for fifteen years, the president is preparing new carbon emission standards — which if anything will depress job creation rather than encourage it when polluting industries scuttle plans for expansion or move overseas.

While firearm homicides are at a thirty year low, Obama seeks to restrict Americans’ ability to buy guns. A big majority of voters may support enhanced background checks to prevent criminals from buying weapons but it’s not exactly on top of their list of priorities, even after a number of shootings shocked the country this year.

Members of the president’s party and some Republicans seek to make it easier for immigrants to enter the country and gain citizenship while the share of foreign born Americans is at historic highs, alarming especially blue-collar workers who fear that their jobs will be taken by newcomers.

Political reality is partly to blame. With Republicans controlling the lower chamber of Congress and Democrats the Senate, there are few comprehensive economic policy or public-sector reform plans the president could get enacted, even if he wanted to. (Although he’s shown little interest in reining in entitlement spending and streamlining taxes.)

The president, mistakingly, believed that overwhelming support for gun and immigration reform would force Congress to act. Many Republicans, however, and some Democrats do not care for nationwide polls as much as they care about their constituents who, especially in industrial and rural areas, tend to be more wary of the government meddling with their gun rights and letting in foreigners than their counterparts in the cities are.

Climate change legislation probably wouldn’t make it through the Republican House of Representatives either but here the president has leeway. He can simply direct the Environmental Protection Agency to notch up its standards or enforce existing laws more strictly.

It won’t do the economy much good. But at least Obama could get something done.

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