11 Topics Obama Must Tackle by 2016

China. Marijuana. Jobs. Find out what other issues he'll likely confront in his second term.

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    Affirmative action plaintiff Abigail Fisher in front of the U.S. Supreme Court (AFP/Getty Images); Susan Rice, President Obama's standing nominee for secretary of state (Spencer Platt/Getty Images); onlookers cheer after the Supreme Court upholds President Obama's Affordable Care Act (AFP/Getty Images)

    It ain’t easy being president — hey, that’s what Kermit the Frog would sing if he were a political analyst. And while those words are trite, they’re also true. Political and industry lobbies and groups of equally outraged citizens on different sides of issues all demand loudly that the president follow their desires. Who would have predicted during election 2008 that the president would endorse legalizing same-sex marriage or be faced with deciding how to respond to states legalizing marijuana? As we look ahead to Barack Obama’s second term in office, let’s dig into the top issues that could turn into open political warfare.

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    Voters line up to cast their ballots on Election Day in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

    Voter Suppression

    In case you needed a reminder that voter suppression is real, writer Roger Simon of Politico spoke to “a disgusted Republican staffer” who attended a key meeting back in 2000 during which party officials planned ways to suppress the minority vote. In 2012 some of that planning resulted in restrictions on early voting and diminishment of polling facilities in minority communities. In Florida, for example, some voters waited seven hours to cast ballots. President Obama, in his acceptance speech for his second term, said, “I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time. By the way, we have to fix that.” Strong words, but no small task.

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    Chicagoans line up for a municipal job fair in November 2012 (Scott Olsen/Getty Images)

    It's (Still) the Jobs, Stupid

    In 1992 political strategist James Carville made “the economy, stupid” the short-form explanation of why Bill Clinton was better for the country than sitting President George H.W. Bush. Many political analysts, including me, thought that “the jobs, stupid” would be the big battle in 2012. After a campaign that became more of a referendum on political inclusion — i.e., the 47 percent — we are in a post-election season during which the focus will return to jobs. Mitt Romney was right when he noted that President Obama envisioned far more job creation than happened in his first term. Will Americans demand the president do more to step up the pace of re-employment? In the black community, the unemployment rate today is still a staggering 14.3 percent.

     

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    Affirmative action plaintiff Abigail Fisher in front of the U.S. Supreme Court (AFP/Getty Images)

    Affirmative Action

    It’s back! One of the most controversial perennial battles between American conservatives and liberals has been over the definition and application of affirmative action policies when it comes to racial equality in education and the workplace. Now the U.S. Supreme Court has once again taken up the issue. President Obama is supporting the University of Texas’ affirmative action policy in a case before the court filed by Abigail Noel Fisher, who argues that she was denied admission because of affirmative action. The decision won’t be delivered until next year. No matter what the outcome of this case, it seems an issue that the Supreme Court is willing to tackle again and again.

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    A 2012 panorama of current Supreme Court justices (Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)

    Supreme Court Nominees

    Along with the battle over affirmative action, the president will keep his eye on the composition of the highest court in the land. No one can say when a justice will retire or die. These are lifelong positions if the justices are able and willing to serve. The president’s re-election at the very least gives him the power to nominate whom he chooses should a vacancy become available. Right now the court is divided. The fact that it upheld the Affordable Care Act came as a surprise to some, particularly when Chief Justice John Roberts voted to uphold the ACA although he’s generally considered a conservative.

    There are four justices over the age of 70: two more-liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer; and two more-conservative ones, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. A mix of fate and political will could reshape the court in the president’s second term.

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    Coloradoans celebrate 4/20 in front of Denver City Hall (Getty Images)

    Marijuana Laws and States' Rights

    When we think of states’ rights, we usually think of the way that phrase has been used in the battle over race and integration. But there’s another states’ rights fight brewing right now, and it’s about drug law — specifically whether states have the right to legalize marijuana. During election 2012, Colorado and Washington state both voted to legalize marijuana, and not just the medical kind. That provoked Central and Latin American countries to challenge U.S. drug policy. How can they be held accountable for drug trafficking to the north if marijuana is legal in some places? That takes what some people think of as a states’ rights issue into international political waters — and more headaches for the Obama administration.

     

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    President Obama talks to students at Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington, Va. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

    Teaching to the Standards  

    President Obama criticized George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law for forcing educators to teach to the test. But some critics say the president’s plan, including Race to the Top grants that arguably pit states against one another for resources, can also constrain teachers under a different rhetoric of teaching to common standards.

    Issues of black and Latino grade-readiness and graduation rates continue to shape this debate. In 2010 an alliance of seven civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, delivered a policy paper that said in part: “If education is a civil right, children in ‘winning’ states should not be the only ones who have the opportunity to learn in high quality environments. Such an approach reinstates the antiquated and highly politicized frame for distributing federal support to states that civil rights organizations fought to remove in 1965.” Other critics argue that the president isn’t being tough enough, and that his initiative allows too many waivers to the standards he champions.

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    President Obama talks during fiscal-cliff negotiations (Getty Images)

    More Money, More Problems: Taxes and Fiscal Cliffs

    Political talking heads love jargon, and that means right now there’s a lot of frenzied talk about the “fiscal cliff.” The simplest way to explain it is that our government made a bet with itself, and we may be about to lose. When the Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on budget policy, they just postponed the debate until later. Well, later is now.

    The fiscal cliff doesn’t only cut spending. The tax cuts made under President George W. Bush are set to expire. The GOP wants them extended for all taxpayers; the president, only for less affluent taxpayers. Last-minute horse trading on Capitol Hill may not prevent us from going over the fiscal cliff — which some analysts point out is really more of a downward slope. Hard to find that comforting.

     

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    President Obama officially supports same-sex marriage during a televised interview with ABC's Robin Roberts (White House/Getty Images)

    Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Political Rights

    After President Obama went on ABC News in March of 2012 to say he now supported gay marriage, the backlash that some political analysts predicted from more socially conservative black churches never materialized on a grand scale. But the issue isn’t over yet, either in the broader community or in the black community. In many states, gay men and lesbians can be fired for their sexual orientation without the (admittedly inadequate) protections covering gender and racial discrimination at work.

    Will the president push for comprehensive lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights? One question is whether the president will be seen as prioritizing LGBT rights over the black community’s, or vice versa. Equality is one thing in concept, but in the world of real politics, keeping all your constituencies happy and making them believe that their needs are evenly prioritized is an impossible task.

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    Barack Obama with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (AFP/Getty Images)

    China: America's No. 1 Frenemy

    Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, the saying goes. So where does that leave the U.S. when it comes to China? On the one hand, China owns more than $1 trillion of U.S. debt, making it the largest foreign debtholder. And trade with China is essential. (Where do you think all that stuff people bought at Wal-Mart on Black Friday comes from, anyway?)

    On the other hand, the one-party system of Chinese government means that China can move decisively to enter new markets, from buying up African mining rights to undercutting U.S. green-jobs plans by heavily subsidizing its own solar and wind-power industries. In the long term, China’s internal politics — farmers protesting against government landgrabs, the ongoing tensions over Tibet and dissenting voices like that of artist-activist Ai Weiwei — may, more than anything, reshape how aggressive China can be in its dealings with the U.S.

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    Susan Rice, President Obama's standing nominee for secretary of state (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

    The Arab Spring 'Groundhog Day' Scenario, War and Mideast Peace

    In the movie Groundhog Day, actor Bill Murray portrayed a man who has to live the same day over and over again until he learns some important life lessons. What was once called the Arab Spring is shaping up to be another “Groundhog Day,” with the Egyptian revolution producing a new leader who has now granted himself dictator-like powers, and the conflict and bloodshed in Syria ongoing. Add to that the U.S. forces still in Afghanistan and the U.S. role in Israeli-Palestinian relations (most recently concerning the fighting in Gaza).

    President Obama will also need a new secretary of state because Hillary Clinton is resigning. The potential nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has been met with strong opposition. Rice’s confirmation hearings, and the discussion of her role in speaking about the killing of State Department officials at the Libyan Embassy, could be one of the first pitched battles of the president’s second term.

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    Onlookers cheer after the Supreme Court upholds President Obama's Affordable Care Act (AFP/Getty Images)

    Health Care Reform Re-Formed

    President Obama made the Affordable Care Act his first big political victory after taking office. Since then we’ve seen a Supreme Court decision upholding most of the law (much to some conservatives’ surprise) and pushback from insurers and opposing politicians. The law as it exists on paper is just a blueprint, and the rollout of implementation will continue well into the president’s second term. For example, during 2013 to 2015, new parts of the law will be enacted, ranging from more funding for child health care to tax credits for families to shifting how doctors get paid for their services.

    We can also expect some states to continue challenges to parts of the laws. As with the issue of Supreme Court nominees, abortion policy will get folded into this debate.

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