President Barack Obama is off to a good start this year with his frank approach to gun regulation, recognizing the right to bear arms but calling out the hypocrisy of equating military assault weapons with anything the Founding Fathers might have imagined. On the eve of his second inauguration, we hope for more of the same on the other pressing challenges of the day — even when speaking the truth edges close to that third rail of politics and risks electrifying the opposition.
Job creation. Immigration. Climate change. And, more fundamentally, the need to face up to America’s decades-long failure to pay as it goes for the government services the vast majority of its people value, whether they’re baby boomers or from later generations, from blue or red states, from cities or farms.
Progress will be difficult at best, given the GOP’s compromise-averse majority in the House and its Senate minority that too often blocks issues the country needs to debate — unless Senate Democrats have the backbone to change filibuster rules this month.
As to awakening Americans’ understanding of the need for all of us to pay for what we value, that will take gradual cultural change. But a president’s second term is the time to engage big ideas. From basic services such as medical care, Social Security and public safety to the capital needs on which our lives and economy depend — highway and transit systems, clean and reliable water supplies — our sense of entitlement is sometimes incongruous with the widespread belief that taxes are fundamentally bad.
Obama has a good chance of achieving immigration reform. Thank Latino voters, who showed in November that a party bent on demonizing immigrants would have no claim on their support. Suddenly Republican leaders became reform evangelists — we hope enough of them to approve a path to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants who are constructive members of our communities and our workforce.
Some gun regulation may be possible; even the National Rifle Association is warming up to background checks. Boosting job creation may be more difficult, especially if Republicans block raising the debt ceiling next month and plunge the nation back into recession. Climate change will be hardest, given the anti-science elements of Congress. Regardless, the president needs to raise the big issues.
Obama needs to negotiate on all this. It is the essence of democracy. But he can do it from a position of strength and public clarity, enlisting the help of the voters who returned him to office.
Fresh from that vote of confidence, a second-term president can embrace the role of statesman. Obama earned the chance and should relish it.