Monday, November 10, 2008

The issues facing Obama

HopeBama. Can he save America with plans on Energy, Education, Health care, Guantánamo Bay, Security and citizenship, Tax breaks, old and new, Iraq, Iran, Nafta?



"I will invest $15 billion a year in renewable sources of energy to create five million new energy jobs over the next decade."

Oct. 31, Des Moines, Iowa

On energy and climate change, Barack Obama's focus has shifted over the course of the year as the economy has weakened.

An earlier proposal put an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gases, requiring industry and utilities to buy credits from the government to emit carbon dioxide. The plan would have produced hundreds of billions of dollars in government revenue and drive up the cost of energy for everyone.

Obama is now emphasizing a program to spend $150 billion over 10 years to develop renewable sources of energy, like wind, solar and biofuels, and to encourage energy conservation in homes, offices and public buildings. He would also provide substantial financial help to the auto industry to develop high-mileage and electric cars.


"A truly historic commitment to education - a real commitment - will require new resources and new reforms."

May 28, Mapleton, Colorado

Obama's education plan outlined about $8 billion for recruiting, performance pay and other initiatives that represent his approach to updating the Bush education law known as No Child Left Behind. But his plan also offered grand proposals for every level of education, including a $4,000 tuition tax credit that would make college more affordable for millions of students and a $10 billion expansion of early childhood programs.

The challenge will be how to finance all those proposals when budgets are extremely tight, experts said.

Obama's $10 billion proposal to expand early childhood education would probably produce tremendous savings to the nation later, but experts said he would find it extremely challenging to finance under current financial conditions.

Health care

"If you don't have health insurance, you'll be able to get the same kind of health insurance that members of Congress get."

Oct. 31, Des Moines

Obama has said "every American has a right to affordable health care," but he has not said exactly how he would finance coverage for the 45 million people who are uninsured. The economic slump and the bailout for the financial industry may reduce the amounts available to cover the uninsured.

On his Web site, Obama says his health plan "will lower health care costs by $2,500 for a typical family by investing in health information technology, prevention and care coordination." Health policy experts endorse those goals but say they are unlikely to produce such large savings.

If Obama hopes to keep his promise, he will need to mobilize public support for specific legislative proposals. And he will need to co-opt or placate a swarm of lobbyists.

Guantánamo Bay

"We're going to lead by setting the highest of standards for civil liberties and civil rights and human rights."

Feb. 20, Dallas

As president, Obama could simply declare an end to practices that have been widely condemned as torture. He could revoke President George W. Bush's executive order, disclosed in 2007, that allowed the Central Intelligence Agency to use more severe interrogation techniques than allowed under the U.S. Army Field Manual.

To do so, however, he would have to overrule at least some intelligence professionals who have argued that they need to use more aggressive methods.

His pledge to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, would require finding a place to imprison dozens of detainees.

Federal officials have drafted plans to move them to centers in the United States, but even supporters of that acknowledge the potential consequences, including the release of suspects for lack of evidence.

Security and citizenship

"We cannot deport 12 million people. Instead, we'll require them to pay a fine, learn English and go to the back of the line."

Sept. 10, Washington

As a senator, Obama supported comprehensive immigration overhaul, and in the campaign he pledged to enhance border security and provide a path to citizenship for millions of people in the country illegally. And while he said he favored a guest worker program, he also advocated tougher penalties for employing illegal immigrants.

But his proposals are very likely to encounter resistance from those who contend that they amount to amnesty - an argument that helped jettison a bill in Congress. And with the economy shedding jobs, opponents will also argue that immigrants are taking jobs from citizens. But experts say Obama will face pressure to act from the many Hispanic voters who supported his candidacy in part because of his stance on immigration.

Tax breaks, old and new

"As president, here's what I'll do: cut taxes for every working family making less than $200,000 a year."

- Oct. 29, paid television address

Obama pledged to extend the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 past 2010, when they would expire, for taxpayers making less than $250,000 a year. He would repeal the cuts for taxpayers making more than that, effective Jan. 1, 2010.

Obama considers the extension for those making under $250,000 a continuation of current policy, not a tax cut.

But he promises a new break for taxpayers making less than $200,000 - an annual tax credit of $500 a worker, or $1,000 a working couple. It would be a refundable credit, so those who do not earn enough to pay income taxes but do pay payroll taxes would also benefit.

Given the economic crisis and the Democratic gains in Congress, the odds are good that he will push the measures through.


"Nobody's talking about bringing them home instantly, but one to two brigades a month. It'll take about 16 months to get our combat troops out."

May 16, Watertown, South Dakota

Obama has said repeatedly that he would set a 16-month timetable for troop withdrawal. Some military experts believe that could lead to a reversal of the gains from the increase in troops over the past 18 months, and they argue that the generals running the war should decide how many troops to pull out and when to do it.

Obama appears to have the Iraqi government on his side. Iraqi leaders say his timetable is closer to theirs, which they put at 2010. The Bush administration timetable, which has some wiggle room, was 2011.

But all of this supposes relative stability, even while troops are withdrawing. And questions also remain about the kind and level of force Obama would leave behind.


"I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leaders at a time and place of my choosing."

June 4, Washington

Obama raised expectations that he would meet with Iran's leaders. He said during the campaign that the notion of not talking to America's foes was "ridiculous." Since then, he has tempered his words somewhat, indicating that he would send envoys initially and would meet personally with Iran's leaders only if he thought he could advance the American agenda.

Obama also faces the issue of when to reach out. If he makes a move before June, when Iran's presidential election is scheduled, he risks giving President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claim to a foreign policy victory, to the possible detriment of more moderate Iranian presidential aspirants. But if he waits too long, Iran could get closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon.


"I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced."

Feb. 26, Democratic candidate debate

No legal hurdle would prevent Obama from pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a distinction from other trade deals. But trade experts say the political and economic costs of scuttling the deal would be enormous.

Even opening it up to renegotiate labor and environmental standards carries risks: Canada might seize the opportunity to renegotiate provisions on energy, while Mexico might push for access for its trucks in the United States.

Obama's union supporters have not put changing Nafta at the top of their agenda, focusing instead on issues like China's exchange rate. With little political upside and so much potential downside, this may be one issue Obama prefers not to touch.

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