After months of speeches and debates, and billions of dollars of campaign ads, the elections are over and President Obama has won a second term in office. Now comes the hard part: how to move forward in a polarized political environment where the two major parties don’t agree on the overall role of government, on most policies, and all too often, not even on the facts.
One big unknown is how Republican leaders will respond to the president’s re-election victory. In October of 2010, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” With that goal no longer an option, will Senator McConnell and his fellow Republican Senators be more open to compromise with the president? Or will they be looking over their right shoulders at possible Tea Party primary challengers like those who took out Dick Lugar this year and Mike Castle in 2010 (Richard Mourdock and Christine O’Donnell. respectively, both of whom lost in the general election)? Similarly, with a continuing solid margin of control in the House and a structural advantage because of redistricting in the 2014 elections and beyond, will Speaker Boehner and other House Republican leaders be inclined (and able) to reach deals with a Democratic president and Senate, or are we fated to ever more polarization and gridlock? With the looming fiscal cliff negotiations over taxes, spending, and the debt ceiling, we’ll have the answers to these questions fairly soon.
The president’s science agenda
President Obama laid out a clear science-based agenda for the next four years in his answers to the questions posed by Science Debate 2012, a consortium of science groups including UCS:
- doubling funding for key research agencies and training 100,000 new science and math teachers over the next decade to”meet the urgent need to train one million additional science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates over the next decade;
- taking additional steps to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, and to increase energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy resources;
- bolstering the use of organic farming methods, minimizing pesticides and antibiotics in our food, and further strengthening the ability of the Food and Drug Administration to improve our food safety system; and
- developing a comprehensive approach to improve water quality, restore rivers and critical watersheds, and promote more efficient use of our clean water supplies;
- building on his first term scientific integrity agenda, “by ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda, making scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology, and including the public in our decision making process.”
But none of these issues received much attention in the presidential campaign, with the possible exception of climate change during this past week, in the wake of superstorm Sandy and Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement of President Obama. And the continued split party control of Congress, combined with the difficult fiscal environment, will make progress on these and other science-based issues difficult, to say the least. It will take leadership from the president and his team to rally public support and build bipartisan coalitions for action on any of them.
Addressing climate change
Take the issue of climate change. With growing public awareness and concern about our changing climate in the wake of this year’s extreme weather events — even before Sandy — President Obama has a real opportunity to move the national conversation beyond the false debate over the reality of the science towards a serious effort to both better prepare for the mounting impacts of climate change and to sharply reduce the carbon pollution that is driving it. This will require effective and sustained use of the “bully pulpit,” convening leaders from the science, business, security, faith, and other communities to build support for action, and using all the authorities available to him at the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to move ahead in the face of Congressional gridlock, particularly on emissions from power plants.
Cutting oil use in half
On a related front, cutting our oil use in half by 2030 is both scientifically and technically possible. Neither the science behind the plan nor the benefits of the solutions – for consumers, security, and public health – are partisan. This is about making the US a clean transportation leader, relying on our technological and scientific strengths, and both Democrats and Republicans should be champions for this approach.
In President Obama’s first term, action by EPA and DOT to set higher fuel economy standards for new cars, light trucks, and heavy-duty vehicles represented the single biggest step taken to reduce global warming pollution and oil consumption in the United States. The collaborative approach taken by the agencies, the car companies, California and other states, and clean car advocates in promulgating these standards demonstrates that we can achieve progress even in trying and fractured political circumstances. We should build on this success by taking additional steps to cut our oil use, reduce pollution, and generate savings for consumers.
Investing in sustainable agriculture
One immediate piece of unfinished business is reauthorization of the Farm Bill. Sharp divisions among House Republicans prevented Congress from acting on the Farm Bill before the elections, putting countless programs at risk. Reaching agreement between the House and Senate and getting this legislation to the president’s desk should be a priority in the lame duck session of Congress.
Of course, reauthorizing the Farm Bill is just the first step; we need action from President Obama and Congress on other fronts as well, including support for sustainable agriculture, investing in local food systems, and preventing overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture. These issues were barely addressed in the campaigns across the country this year, but they are vitally important to the health of all Americans and the economic well-being of our rural economy.
Bolstering scientific integrity
On the issue of scientific integrity, President Obama made good progress on his Inauguration Day promise to “restore science to its rightful place.” With four more years in office, he can build on his March, 2009 executive order on scientific integrity in federal agencies. But there is much more work to be done, on a range of issues from protections for scientist whistleblowers, to ensuring the independence of scientific advisory committees, to increasing transparency and scientific independence in federal decision-making.
We need to go beyond these individual solutions to restoring respect for evidence-based approaches to solving our problems. Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer put it well recently when he said that we “have a serious problem when facts don’t matter because every idea or position is judged not by the evidence for or against it but by how it lines up with ideological pre-commitments. It’s no longer enough merely to generate good solutions to problems…in the long run we need to rebuild a world in which rational, evidence-based policymaking is possible.”
Beyond the Beltway
Of course, on all of these issues, we also need to think beyond Washington, and work to promote action by state and local government, corporations, non-profit agencies and individuals. To take just one example of many, the renewable electricity standards that 29 states and the District of Columbia have adopted have been the single biggest factor in the ramped-up deployment of wind, solar, and other clean electricity technologies in recent years. But the same forces that helped block national action on climate change are turning their efforts to rolling back these standards and other successful state clean energy initiatives; they can’t be allowed to succeed.
Finally, we need to do all we can to restore civility, rational argument, and respect for each other as human beings to our national discourse. Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight wrote an excellent post last week on “5 Steps to Curing Election Dysfunction.” (My personal favorite is step four — “stop calling each other jerks.”) This is something we can all do in our own advocacy on issues important to us, and should demand from our elected leaders, from President Obama on down.