The Morning after, Start Now

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Tomasky

The issues he has to crack. The deals he has to make. The people he has to woo.

OK--that was a historic win and a great night for Barack Obama and the Democrats. Now the clock starts--indeed, it started Wednesday--on the president's second term. By tradition, he has until the next midterm elections, about 720 days away, to pass or at least launch the major initiatives that will define both his second four years and his legacy. What should they be?

Here are four issues Obama must or should focus on before the drowsy lame-duckery that inevitably begins to overtake a two-term president's final two years starts to set in--and before a restive House GOP gins up some shaky grounds for an impeachment proceeding, which is always a possibility with today's Republican Party, and which could occupy Obama's final two years as it did Bill Clinton's.

The looming fiscal cliff; climate chaNge; immigratioN; and foreigN policy. Throw in, although it won't be exactly a new thing, overseeing the implementation and fine tuning of the health-care law. That's a Caretaker Thing, albeit a vital one; the other four are all Big Things. The odds of Obama notching accomplishments in all of these areas may be fairly long. But this is the time to think, and aim, big. Here's a quick rundown of each of the four, with a look at some of the key players Obama needs to try to win over to get his deals.

#1 Fiscal Cliff

You should know the basics by now: as the New Year dawns, two things will happen. First, the Bush tax rates will expire, and the old Clinton-era rates--higher for everyone, but especially at the top end of the scale-- will kick in. Second, the deep spending cuts agreed to by Congress last year as part of the debt-ceiling deal will kick in.

No one wants either of these things to happen, but of course this is Washington, so the desire means nothing. The Beltway's leading beard-scratchers are desperate for Obama and Congress to show America that our government actually can work and reach a "grand bargain" that would include: some tax increases (Republicans giving ground), some reining in of entitlement spending (Democrats doing the same), and budget sanity that would avoid the draconian cuts agreed to last year. Any chance of it?

The most likely outcome--surprise--is that they'll pass something to delay the tax increases and the cuts for a few months or a year, when they'll take it all up again. But Obama, on the strength of his larger-than-expected win, will want to aim big. The details are endless and complex, but in broad strokes, this means two things.

First, he'll have to get some Republicans to agree to a tax increase. But consider this: no Republican in Congress--House or Senate; not one!--has voted for a tax increase of any kind since the 1990 deal under which George H.W. Bush broke his "read my lips" pledge and raised taxes. And Speaker John Boehner has already said no to higher tax rates. But he signaled some flexibility, and Obama does have a little bit of leverage over House Republicans, who don't want to see deep Pentagon cuts. So that could be grounds for a deal.

Second, he'll have to get many reluctant Demo crats to sign on to some compromises he'll probably be willing to make, but to which they'll be very re sistant. Example: gradually increasing the eligibility age for Medicare to 67 over the next 15 or so years. To liberals, that's a benefit cut, and the beginning of a stroll down Paul Ryan's slippery slope.

Many Democrats will argue, though, that the possibility of getting Republicans to bend on taxes is such a potential game changer in Washington that it might be worth that price. And Obama, if he were to consummate such a deal, would become a post partisan president overnight--he really would have united Washington, to the extent that it can be.

Friends: Some Republican senators who are conservative but not extreme and maybe willing to play a little ball--Tennessee Republicans Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, Georgia's Johnny Isakson, Oklahoma's Tom Coburn (who is retiring), Illinois's Mark Kirk, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, a few others. …