What we have heard from Barack Obama’s administration recently has been in three major areas. First, gun control, about which a reasonable but still somewhat inflammatory attempt to solidify background checks for purchasers failed. Second, immigration, where a bill combining better legal standing for foreigners illicitly in the United States with stronger border enforcement today passed the Senate. Third, increased climate change legislation, which Obama punctuated this week by comparing those who are not sure human activity contributes significantly to global warming with members of the Flat Earth Society.
Where do the most Americans want legislative changes? Per a January Pew Research survey, first and second were “strengthening economy” and “improving job situation,” named as a “top priority” by 86% and 79% respectively. “Dealing with illegal immigration,” “strengthening gun laws,” and “dealing with global warming,” corresponding to the three issues above, received 39%, 37%, and 28%, finishing 17th, 18th, and last out of 21 issues mentioned.
So what else is wrong with Obama’s current emphases? Five things:
1). They are politically divisive. None of these issues could reasonably be called bipartisan. Some Republicans, headed by Marco Rubio, support immigration reform, but few will call for more climate change laws, and further gun control legislation, due to conservative resistance, should clearly be put on hold.
2). The two surviving efforts are destructive to the jobs crisis. Encouraging more foreign low-skilled workers in the United States has been a good idea at several times, but 2013 is not among them. Joblessness for high school dropouts, with whom most of such resident aliens would be competing, went over 27% this spring. Although employers have had trouble filling many of their jobs with Americans, that would end with higher pay. As for climate-change-related regulations, except for the regulator positions themselves, they can only cost jobs.
3). Obama seems to be positioning himself to spend his political capital, already weak outside Democrats, on things less essential to the country. True, Congress stopped his proposed American Jobs Act last year, but a push for more laws related to climate change alienates too many who might be more willing to work with him otherwise. More than that, the choice of these issues, which are, as Douthat put it “pillars of Acela Corridor ideology” catering to, as well as liberals, “the Wall Street 1 percent,” has potential to put Obama in an elitist, regionalist light. That would be sadly unfair for his presidency as a whole, which has previously been considerably more moderate.
4). The timing for all three issues is poor. As Douthat pointed out:
The president decided to make gun control legislation a major second-term priority ... with firearm homicides at a 30-year low. Congress is pursuing a sharp increase in low-skilled immigration ... when the foreign-born share of the American population is already headed for historical highs. The administration is drawing up major new carbon regulations ... when actual existing global warming has been well below projections for 15 years and counting.
5). The jobs crisis, and by extension the economy, are simply more important. Understanding the permanence of the jobs crisis is not a political stand. People are, indeed, becoming aware of the true nature of this situation, and will be increasingly willing, whatever their political obligations and orientations, to work to improve it. With more than 20 million Americans who would work if they could easily find it, which affects the 9th-ranked Pew Research issue, “helping poor and needy,” as well, the lack of work is as broad-based a problem as any.
I understand Obama’s frustration with recent years. His actions, as opposed to the ideas people have attributed to him, have been consistently moderate, and his foreign policy, to name only one area, has been more conservative than liberal. He has repeatedly tried to negotiate with members of Congress who seemed to want only to refuse everything. He has contended with many loudly heard voices purporting to dislike everything, regardless of objective merit, he has done.
Yet the jobs crisis will not wait for him. Computer scientists, roboticists, and other technologists are searching, as I write and you read, for ways to get machines to do even more work. Ever more people in other countries are gaining the education, skills, language knowledge, and workplace attitudes needed to compete for what are still American jobs. Businesses of all kinds are discovering more and more methods to save time, money, and, in the process, labor. The jobs crisis will command bipartisan cooperation – if not during this presidency, then in the next one. If Obama is concerned about his place in history, he must get his policy efforts, successful or not, on the side of it.