Keep On Steppin’, Mr. President

Robert Borosage

The President’s historic executive action on immigration has been greeted with scripted Republican outrage, from threats to close the government (again), block all presidential appointees (what’s new?), and riots in the streets (see #coburnriots on twitter for gripping hour by hour reporting of the carnage). But threats of more obstruction are pretty empty from a Republican leadership that has waged a relentless scorched earth opposition to all things Obama from the start of his administration.

Instead of suing for peace, the president would be wise to keep on steppin’. President Obama has already shown the way not only on immigration but with the historic agreement on climate with the Chinese (scorned as a “war on coal” by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell) and his firm support for net neutrality. Writing in The Nation before the immigration action, publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel urged the president to “double down” and act boldly, both to make some progress and to frame debates that the country must have. The president has, as he said, has his pen and his phone, as well as the national microphone. There are many critical areas where action is long overdue. Here are some suggestions:

Restore the Vote: 3.9 million Americans are disenfranchised from felony convictions – mostly for non-violent drug offenses – even though they have paid their debt to society. A staggering 13 percent of all African-American men are prohibited from voting. Led by Attorney General Eric Holder, the administration has already taken long overdue measures to reduce sentences for drug offenders and to begin offering clemency to those sentenced to ridiculous terms. The president should issue a pardon to all those non-violent offenders who have served their sentences, removing their offense from the books. He should combine this with a call on all states to join in ending disenfranchisement for ex-offenders who have paid their debt to society. America is a nation of second chances. It is hard to believe that disenfranchisement would exist at all were it not for its racially disproportionate effects on people of color.

Reward Good Employers and Their Workers: The president should issue a Good Jobs Executive Order to leverage the $1 trillion in federal procurement to reward good employers. Give procurement preference to employers that pay a living wage, provide good benefits and allow their workers to organize and bargain collectively. Reward employers like Costco rather than Walmart that pays its workers so little that taxpayers are stuck with subsidizing their wages. The president has already acted to lift the minimum wage on federal contract workers. He should take the next step – which Demos estimates could put 21 million on the road to the middle class – and urge governors and mayors to follow in his course. At a time of record inequality and a declining middle class, it is long past time to put government on the side of workers and good employers rather than the exploiters.

Demand Action on Green Jobs: With the China deal on climate, the forthcoming Environmental Protection Agency action on carbon emissions, and his underappreciated fuel efficiency standards, the president has acted against the unsustainable fossil fuel economy. Now he should act boldly to demand action to embrace the jobs and growth that will come from leading the transition to renewable energy and the green industrial revolution. He should make green jobs the centerpiece of his State of the Union address. He should call for action for a bold Tennessee Valley Authority-sized jobs and green energy program for “coal country.” McConnell charges that the president is waging war on coal. The president should make it clear this is a choice between the unsustainable, dying economy of the past and a future that offers good jobs and new opportunities. He should complement this by convening mayors from both coasts to map out steps to meet the already rising seas and increasing superstorms. As Hurricane Sandy demonstrated, our decrepit and decaying infrastructure is in dire need of modernization.

Normalize Relations with Cuba: Foreign policy offers many opportunities for presidential action – cutting the deal with Iran to stem nuclear proliferation, acting boldly with Russia to guarantee Ukraine’s independence and unity and avoid a new Cold War, bringing the nation’s longest war in Afghanistan to an end. But there is no longer-lasting American folly than the failed, half-century long economic boycott and effort to isolate Cuba. The boycott has damaged the Cuban economy, but has bolstered support for the regime. It has damaged relations with our neighbors throughout Latin America, to the point where we are isolating ourselves. Congress has limited the president’s ability simply to end the boycott, but he can act to restore normal diplomatic relations, expand travel opportunities, lift private investment restrictions, and end the cap on remittances from Cuban Americans living in the states. He should hail Cuba for its courageous action against Ebola, and remove it from the State Department’s terrorist list. In April, the Seventh Summit of the America’s has insisted on Cuban attendance. The President should go to that meeting, having acted boldly to end a half century of folly.

Hold At Least One Bankster Accountable: Justice delayed is justice denied, and it is too late to prosecute many of the banksters whose excesses blew up the economy. But the president should use the occasion of Attorney General Eric Holder’s departure to put together a real task force to investigate and prosecute bankers who are recidivists, like those at Standard Chartered whose leaders apparently violated the settlement made with the Justice Department as it was signed. It is apparent that little has changed on Wall Street, and that agreements made with the Justice Department are being ignored in the greed for profit. The Justice Department should put all on notice: Violations of signed settlements will lead to prosecution not of the bank but of the bankers, and fines levied not against shareholders but against bankers’ personal fortunes. Just one perp walk would do much to sober up these serial offenders.

These represent only some of the actions the president should take. No doubt, they will elicit more outrage, wringing of hands, waving of fists from the Congress and the wingnuts. But as the president has already discovered with the China agreement and immigration orders, action frames the debate – and on these and many other issues, the majority of Americans agree with the president – and the base of his voters will be roused by his courage. Republican control of the Congress insures unending fights to stop bad things from happening. The president should act independently to move good things forward. Keep on steppin’, Mr. President.

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