By Christi Parsons, Kathleen Hennessey and David Lauter, Tribune Washington Bureau –
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — “Forward,” reads the slogan on President Barack Obama’s re-election posters. Toward what, specifically, the president and his top aides have said relatively little.
Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention on Thursday laid out general goals on smaller-scale issues while saying little about the larger debates that probably would dominate a second term if he was re-elected. Administration officials defend that approach, noting that Republican nominee Mitt Romney has offered even fewer specifics.
The clearest priority that Obama has established for a potential second term is his demand that tax rates go up on incomes over $250,000 per year. If he is re-elected, that goal would set up an early, and potentially intense, battle with congressional Republicans, who are likely to retain control of the House and perhaps win a majority in the Senate.
Obama would have some powerful leverage in that fight. In a meeting with reporters several months ago — long before he joined the Republican ticket as the vice presidential nominee — Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., argued that Republicans should make their budget plans a major theme of the election because winning would then provide a clear mandate for implementing their plans. “Elections are about choices,” he said.
Pressed on whether he would make the same statement if Obama won, Ryan didn’t answer. White House aides, however, will not be so reticent. They have made clear that having put the tax issue at the center of his campaign, Obama will claim a mandate for it even in a narrow victory.
The current low tax rates adopted under President George W. Bush expire automatically on Dec. 31. If Congress gridlocks, Obama would win the higher rates, but that would also trigger an across-the-board increase that would violate his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class.
To prevent that, White House aides have indicated that Obama would try for a deal resembling the “grand bargain” he unsuccessfully sought last year with House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. That would involve congressional Republicans agreeing to accept some higher taxes and Democrats accepting new restraints on the government’s huge entitlement programs, primarily Medicare. Obama’s aides concede that the possibility of that happening would depend on how Republicans interpreted an Obama victory in November, whether it would cause them to compromise with Obama or fight even harder.
While dealing with the budget, a second Obama administration would face several additional challenges:
IRAN: Is a compromise possible with the government in Tehran over its nuclear program? An agreement almost certainly would have to include allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium to at least low levels, a right guaranteed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Israel would object to such an agreement, but the risk of another Middle East war could impel the United States to go for the deal after the election, foreign policy experts say.
HEALTHCARE: A re-elected Obama administration would have to spend substantial time and energy implementing the president’s healthcare reform law. The law takes full effect in 2014. Between now and then, getting it in place will require many politically fraught decisions, including how much flexibility to give to states and private insurance companies.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE: The Supreme Court has said the Constitution’s protections for free speech do not allow the government to limit how much wealthy individuals or interest groups can spend to promote a candidate or idea. Obama has talked recently about pushing for a constitutional amendment to change that, although it’s unclear how much of his political capital he would be willing to invest in what would certainly be a long, contentious process on an issue that few voters consider a top priority.
IMMIGRATION: If Obama wins, he almost certainly would owe his victory to a large turnout of Latino voters. Because of that, he would face intense pressure to make a stronger effort to pass legislation in a second term than he did in the first.
In his 2008 campaign, Obama promised to try to pass comprehensive immigration reform. In office, he failed to make a serious push for it. This summer, Obama took executive action to provide protected status for many young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. That move has helped Obama among Latinos, but also increases pressure to go further, said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leading advocate for immigration reform in Congress.
“You just can’t allow the 1.5 million kids in and then not expect that community of young adults to turn around and say, ‘What about my mom?’” he said.
CLIMATE: Obama sharply criticized Romney in Thursday’s speech, saying “Climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children’s future.”
Since his election, Obama has taken two significant steps to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases — measures to increase the fuel economy of new cars and regulations to reduce the use of coal to generate electricity. But broader measures failed in Congress in 2009. If Obama wins reelection, environmental groups will push hard for him to make a renewed effort, which could involve further regulatory steps if the deadlock in Congress continues.
JOBS: One thing that neither Obama nor Romney is likely to make a priority is the issue that most voters list as their top concern: generating more jobs in the short-term. Romney philosophically opposes government intervention to stimulate the economy; Obama supports stimulus, but knows the public, and Congress, has soured on the idea.
Advisers to both camps quietly accept the analysis by prominent economists who say that countries typically take five years to recover from a financial crisis of the sort that walloped the U.S. in 2008. Both have proposed ideas they think will help the economy in the longer term — tax cuts in Romney’s case, investments in infrastructure in Obama’s. But for the short run, both assume the economy will largely return to normal over the next year or two and begin producing more jobs, barring some further disruption. Neither wants to say that to voters.