Now that the 2012 presidential horse race is over, America can stop focusing on gaffes and attack ads, and pay attention to issues that matter, like when exactly Gen. David Petraeus began sleeping with his mistress, and how she dresses. (Not really!) Seriously, though, when a president gets a second term, it's an opportunity to secure a legacy and achieve policy goals without having to worry about that pesky re-election problem. Here, four things Obama failed to accomplish in his first term, but absolutely should in his second. No excuses, Mr. President.
1. Demonstrate leadership on climate change legislation
One of the final nails in the coffin of Republican challenger Mitt Romney's campaign was when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is independent, endorsed Obama. The show of support came with a twist: Bloomberg said Obama was the better candidate to tackle climate change, which up until Hurricane Sandy wasn't exactly a top campaign issue.
Bloomberg is right that Obama made progress toward slowing global warming in his first term. According to Chris Mooney, a former Knight Science Journalism fellow and host of Climate Desk Live, Obama's greatest accomplishment was improving vehicle fuel efficiency by pressuring auto manufacturers to improve mileage on existing models and speed the development of electric cars. In 2025, auto fuel efficiency is projected to be double what it is now.
But Obama still has a long way to go. During the presidential debates, for example, Obama didn't mention climate change once, and Al Gore has criticized the president for doing little to "make passage [of cap and trade] a priority." If Obama wants to start taking climate change seriously, Mooney says, he needs to "show stronger leadership, talk directly about the issue and how damaging it is to the country... and push for a smart and popular policy that not only places a price on carbon, but returns dividends to taxpayers."
2. Visit Israel
Both presidential candidates told a lot of whoppers during the debates, but one statement made by Romney rang completely true: Obama has never visited Israel as president. As PolitiFact points out, this isn't uncommon: A majority of the last 11 presidents haven't either. But given Obama's notoriously chilly relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu — the Israeli prime minister backed Romney and has butted heads repeatedly with Obama on Iran — it's a political liability. Obama needs to visit Israel and make improving ties with Netanyahu a priority. And hey, he could even use his second term to push for an Arab-Israeli peace deal.
3. End the silence on drone strikes
During the presidential debates, there was one issue that Obama and Romney wholeheartedly agreed on: The use of drone strikes for counterterrorism. The Obama administration has been using these unmanned aerial vehicles in Pakistan to assassinate "high-level" targets. Proponents say that drones allow operators to accurately identify targets and limit casualties — but that hasn't really been the case.
According to a joint study by Stanford and New York University law schools, of the total number of casualties caused by drone strikes, only 2 percent were high-level targets. Instead, a preponderance of evidence shows that the strikes injure and kill civilians, like the 16-year-old son of al Qaeda member Anwar al-Awlaki. How many civilians? It's impossible to know — not only does the Obama administration not release that information, it doesn't even officially acknowledge that the program exists.
If the president is going to be killing teenagers, the American public deserves full disclosure of the criteria for strikes, whether the criteria abide by international law, and insight into investigations of civilian casualties.
4. Reject the Keystone pipeline
Look, I get it, America. We're the land of Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise. We want our gas and we want it cheap. The giant Keystone XL pipeline would help feed the beast, by carrying oil en masse from Canada to Texan refineries. It would also assist in U.S. energy independence. Great stuff, if you ignore the fact that the pipeline could leak a "highly corrosive, acidic, and potentially unstable blend of thick raw bitumen" all over America, potentially devastating water supplies in the Midwest. According to a study by the Government Accountability Office, the pipeline would also "negatively impact aquatic life."
And as Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the pipeline doesn't actually reduce U.S. reliance on Middle East oil, because "U.S. vulnerability to turmoil in the Middle East is linked to how much oil we consume, not where we buy it from.... When convulsions in Libya sent the price of crude up 30 percent last year, prices for Canadian heavy oil (similar to what is produced from oil sands) rose by nearly 55 percent."
The Keystone XL pipeline is not going to solve our energy dependence problems. Obama needs to stop waffling and bite the bullet. He needs to nix this environmentally catastrophic pipeline and tell Americans it's time to suck it up and figure out a way to deal with our obsession with oil. That's not something you have to tell China — the country has invested $15 billion in electric vehicles and infrastructure, including rolling out electric garbage trucks, buses, and taxis in 25 cities.
As Ariel Schwartz of Co.Exist describes it, "it's like they're trying to embarrass us." Or rather, President Obama has, unfortunately, allowed China to take the lead on investments in energy efficient programs.