The Next Big Issues for Obama: Looking Past Health Care, Catholic Progressives Hope for Social Justice Agenda

Article excerpt

When the president of the United States steps to the rostrum of the House of Representatives to deliver his State of the Union address next month, only a handful of senior aides and speech-writers will know exactly what issues he will highlight. It is expected that President Obama will have already signed the health care reform legislation by the time of the State of the Union. What comes next? Already Catholic progressives are speculating and hoping that the president will announce an agenda that is redolent of Catholic social teaching.

At the top of the list for most Catholic progressives is immigration reform, an issue candidate Obama promised to address last year. The longer-than-expected negotiations on health care have prevented action so far. Some of Obama's leading congressional allies are hopeful the White House will deliver in 2010. "Immigration is definitely something I want to see the administration take on," - Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., told NCR. "Early on, the president met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and showed his commitment to the issue."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has already launched a postcard campaign on immigration and it is an issue that unites virtually all members of the conference. Given the fact that they are likely to oppose the final health care bill unless it includes the most restrictive approach to abortion coverage, immigration may be the vehicle by which the bishops' conference mends fences with the Obama administration.

The principal difficulty in pushing immigration reform at this point is that a guest-worker program must be a part of any comprehensive package and with the unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent, conservatives will demagogue the issue. Of course, undocumented immigrants already work in America, and the reform will only regularize their legal status, but that is the kind of fact that can easily get lost when people are worried about their own job security.

Still, Sanchez contends that immigration reform can be an electoral winner for Democrats who are already nervous about the midterm elections in November. "It can pump up the base and motivate higher Hispanic turnout nationwide," she said. Nor does she think the issue will cost the Democrats. "The Tea Party people are also likely to be the loudest anti-immigration voices," she observed. "A lot of their anger towards President Obama is thinly veiled racism. They won't be voting for the Democrats no matter what we do."

Chris Korzen, executive director of the advocacy group Catholics United, thinks that another potential victory sought by progressive Catholics could come with the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would make it easier to frustrate union-busting tactics and guarantee workers the right to decide for themselves whether or not to form a union. Catholics United launched a campaign for the legislation last year, and has been focusing on key states with direct lobbying of key legislators, publishing op-eds, and working with other Catholics groups such as the Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice. "It's really about getting 60 votes in the Senate," Korzen told NCR. "The feeling is we are pretty close to passing it."

Climate change is another issue high on the progressive to-do list and, like immigration reform, it is ripe for conservative pushback. Rep. James Sensen-brenner, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, told TheHill. …