Separating political fact from fiction: things can change quickly, and everything is possible.

12 Feb

POTUS SOTU

Tonight is the State of the Union. In his speech, President Obama will undoubtedly lay out a bold, progressive agenda that will help map out the policy priorities that will shape his second term. Topics likely to receive focus include climate change, deficit-reduction, immigration reform, gun control, energy, and education. Foreign policy will likely only feature sparingly in the address of a president increasingly focused on nation-building at home, though, one should not rule out the possibility of a surprisingly forward-looking call to restart talks on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, particularly with President Obama headed to the region this spring, and North Korea’s nuclear test last night will almost certainly elicit a stern rebuke and warning from the Commander-in-chief.

Following the address, pundits will immediately praise the president for the eloquence he invariably delivers in big speeches, but caution that his lofty words and proposals will likely not advance far in a Congress that remains bitterly divided along partisan lines. One can scarcely blame the talking heads for their skepticism. After all, retrenchment and stalemate have become the M.O. in Washington, a context in which little gets done to address the myriad serious, long-term challenges facing our country.

No amount of charisma or good sense in the president’s speech will convince lawmakers who oppose his ideas to drop their resistance. However, in the follow-up to the State of the Union, the administration has a real opportunity to accomplish “big things” over the next four years, including policy triumphs that most would deem impossible at this moment. I believe this, because, despite the fractured nature of our country’s politics, a quick glance around the world – both domestically and abroad – shows that policy developments and path reversals once considered impossible can occur suddenly and without expectation.

Two examples from the United States support this line of argument: immigration policy and LGBT rights. Long two of our country’s most polarizing social policy issues, immigration reform and increased LGBT rights now seem faits accomplis. In terms of the former, Republican congressional leaders, scarred by Latinos’ overwhelming support for Obama in the last two presidential elections, understand that they need to drop their draconian stance on immigration policy to curry favor with the country’s fastest-growing demographic.

On the latter, simple demographics have triggered an inflection point in the fight for equal rights. Most young people today know and are friends with a member of the LGBT community. They understand that, far from the sinful creatures social conservatives have long made them out to be, folks in the “queer” community are normal members of society and grapple with the same worries, hopes, and goals as their “straight” counterparts. This realization has triggered a virtuous cycle in which more people are comfortable coming out, which in-turn means more straight people are meeting and befriending them, further laying the groundwork for more folks to come out, and so on. Social conservatives have lost on the LGBT rights issue not because they have been convinced by the arguments of equal rights crusaders – although a great deal of credit is owed to the many groups who have bravely fought for same-sex equality thru the years – but because the natural march of demographics has exposed the moral bankruptcy of their position.

It is worth keeping in-mind that the biggest triumphs on immigration policy and LGBT rights have occurred in the last few months. It was only two weeks ago that a group of Republican Senators put forth a plan on immigration reform that their Democratic counterparts and the president himself said they could support. Remember that, during the Republican presidential primaries, the objective among candidates when it came to immigration policy was to outdo their opponents in terms of putting forth draconian ideas. Recall, in particular, the upbraiding Texas Governor Rick Perry received from opponents when he suggested that well-performing students who came to this country illegally as babies should be allowed to go to college in the United States. Now, having had their clocks thoroughly cleaned by Latino voters in November’s election, some (though certainly not all) GOP leaders in Congress are waking up to the reality that they cannot compete in national elections going forward unless they prevent Democrats from consistently winning nearly 70 percent of the Latino vote. If you would have asked pundits six months ago whether we’d see comprehensive immigration reform anytime soon, most would have said you were crazy. Now, it seems certain we’ll have such legislation by the end of 2013.

On LGBT rights, proponents have scored a number of victories over the last several months: the end of don’t ask, don’t tell; President Obama’s vocal support for gay marriage; marriage equality victories in Maine, Maryland, and Washington; and the rejection of a same-sex marriage ban in Minnesota.  In a few months, the Supreme Court could strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, a misguided piece of legislation that allows states to not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. The outlook for immigration reform and LGBT rights has improved more rapidly and more dramatically than almost anyone expected.

Another, wonkier (and certainly much less-followed) example of rapid and unforeseen policy change appears in the context of U.S.-Brazilian trade relations. As a student of Latin America and someone who has worked professionally on U.S. policy toward the region over the last few years, I know that one longstanding hindrance to warmer U.S.-Brazilian relations had been U.S. subsidies for producers of corn-based ethanol and the significant U.S. tariff on imports of sugar-based ethanol, of which Brazil represents the world’s leading producer. Latin America watchers long considered the subsidy and tariff an unfortunate but unavoidable result of politicians’ desire to protect farmers in the Heartland, who vote in mass and many deemed capable of determining House and Senate elections, not to mention the Iowa caucuses, where presidential dreams are made and broken.

However, in 2011, as a deficit-reduction-bent Congress searched for wasteful federal programs to cut, they honed in on and eliminated the subsidy for corn-based ethanol production and, in a nod to consumers (and to similar actions taken by Brazil in 2010), did away with the tax on sugar-based ethanol imports. This happened in the blink of an eye and left Latin America experts perplexed. After all, they, like pundits following other regions and issues, consider certain political dynamics as fixed and, therefore, certain optimal policy outcomes as unviable. So, when Congress did away with the knuckle-headed subsidy for energy inefficient corn production and the tariff on cheaper, more environmentally friendly Brazilian-produced sugar-based ethanol, it left pundits of the region wondering what else was possible in terms of defying political laws once deemed unbreakable. Suddenly, topics long considered taboo – like the failed U.S. embargo on Cuba, or our perpetually icy relations with Hugo Chavéz-led Venezuela – seemed fair game.       

Looking around the globe, as well, one sees situations that have recently gone from gloomy and intractable to hopeful and refreshing. Myanmar represents example one. Long a pariah state ruled by brutal military dictators, Myanmar (or “Burma”, according to the U.S. government) has been closed off to the world for the better part of fifty years. Once the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia, it watched as its Asian Tiger counterparts – Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea – raced past, achieving astonishing growth rates for more than three decades, while Myanmar remained mired in poverty. The country’s hope for a democratic rebirth, Aung San Suu Kyi – known simply as “the Lady” by adoring Myanmar – remained under house arrest for two decades after winning a landslide victory in national elections in 1990.[1]

Then, following supposedly sham elections in 2010, Thein Sein, widely considered a crony of the military strongmen who had ruled Myanmar since the 1960s, took the helm as president, and quickly began opening the country through economic and political reforms. Sein immediately freed The Lady, who, following free and fair elections in April 2012, took a seat in parliament along with 42 other members of her National League for Democracy opposition party. The new president also restored full diplomatic relations with Washington and European capitals, has courted investment into Myanmar’s vast natural resources holdings, and taken important opening steps to liberalize the country’s economy and financial sector. Investors, NGOs, and foreign governments are sprinting to connect with, and market their goods, services, and assistance to, Myanmar’s 60 million people, long considered one of the world’s final frontier markets.

The vast transformation underway in Myanmar has baffled policymakers and pundits alike. Its origins reportedly lie in outrage among citizens over China’s growing influence, particularly in terms of access to natural resources, as well as embarrassment among military leaders at their country’s having been so thoroughly outpaced by its once-lowly Asian Tiger counterparts. Much of the reform appears due to the personal motivation of President Thein, who was involved in, and is thought to have been deeply affected by, Myanmar’s recovery effort after the Cyclone Nargis disaster in 2008, when he experienced first-hand the dictatorship’s utter inability to respond to the most basic needs of its citizens. Whatever the case, the point is that no one saw this coming. The rapid pace of change in Myanmar has proven at once profound and entirely unforeseen.

The broader point is that, in separating political fact from fiction, we see that, in the policy arena, things can happen quickly, and everything is possible. Political “laws” once thought immutable often prove flimsy when faced with the scrutiny of focused, passionate, and well-reasoned advocacy.

Lawmakers and pundits often label optimal policy solutions as politically unviable. The carbon tax represents a good example. In the United States, a carbon tax would have the doubly positive effect of generating much-needed revenue while incentivizing large carbon-emitting businesses to adopt cleaner energy practices. But most executive branch policymakers assume that a carbon tax would prove dead upon arrival in Congress, because of the significant influence that oil and coal firms wield on the Hill. So, administration officials pursue sub-optimal policies to address climate change they assume would engender less opposition from industry and elected officials. And you almost certainly won’t hear President Obama call explicitly for a carbon tax in his State of the Union address.

But, he should. I don’t really understand why politicians don’t take more risks. After all, if they go bold, upset a monied interest, and lose reelection because of it, they can always just get a job as a lobbyist, where they’ll probably make more money anyway.

Plus, as the cases of immigration reform, LGBT rights, trade with Brazil, and Myanmar’s transformation show, big-time policy change can happen, even on issues long considered untouchable. 

So, why not promote policies that will produce the best results for the American people? Even if he is not willing to promote the vast array of optimal policy solutions – on fiscal, on foreign policy, on health care – I would encourage President Obama to go big on one policy that could have a significantly positive impact on our country’s future. In promoting a carbon tax, he has a chance to do so. I hope he surprises me.


[1] In reality, she was jailed just prior to the elections.

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