With a new year comes a fresh start, and the chance to learn from past mistakes. As his first term in office winds to a close, here are some changes for 2012 that we suggest President Obama check off his list.
Get the unemployment rate down to 8 percent: Analysts often reference this factoid: No president since FDR has won re-election with unemployment above 7.2 percent. But don't panic, Mr. President. These are unique times. Heck, when unemployment dropped to 8.6 percent in November (partially on the strength of the roughly 315,000 people who had given up looking for work), it was celebrated as promising news! That said, you did tell 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft that the rate could fall to 8 percent by Election Day, a number that could possibly boost your re-election chances.
Plan ahead for your next speech before the Congressional Black Caucus: We know that you like to put a little stank in it when speaking before African-American audiences, as evidenced by the improvised remarks at the end of your speech at the CBC's annual awards dinner. "Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes," you passionately told the crowd last September. "Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on." We don't need to remind you of the subsequent backlash. This year? Stick to the script.
Fix the rest of the kinks in the housing loan-modification plan: We know that you know about the problems with your Home Affordable Modification Program, launched in 2009 to help distressed families keep their homes. The administration has repeatedly tweaked the program — adding mortgage-payment forbearance for unemployed homeowners and support for state housing agencies instead of relying on banks to cooperate. Yet only 883,076 permanent loan modifications — a far cry from the anticipated 3 million to 4 million — have occurred under HAMP. Let 2012 be the year that you work out the kinks and get banks and lenders to do a much better job.
Let the Bush tax cuts expire (for real this time): The compromise tax bill that you signed in December 2010 yielded some good things, including an extension of unemployment insurance and a payroll-tax cut for working families. But all anybody ever talks about is your two-year extension of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and corporations, which broke a promise. "I refuse to renew them again," you vowed in April. This year, let's keep to it.
Don't be bullied by conspiracy theorists: Remember back in April when you requested that the Hawaii State Department of Health release your long-form birth certificate to prove to extreme "Birthers" that you were, in fact, born in the United States? Yeah, don't do stuff like that in 2012, please.
Keep your word on Guantánamo Bay: Two days after taking office, you signed an executive order to close down the Guantánamo Bay detention center by Jan. 22, 2010. With this goal marred by problems finding other places to house the approximately 240 prisoners held there and resistance from Congress, which refused to fund the effort, Gitmo remains open for business. Still, in 2011 your administration said it "remains committed" (pdf) to keeping your promise, just within a longer time frame. Maybe this is the year to check that off your list?
End mandatory minimums in federal drug sentencing: Your administration has strongly pushed for a new drug-fighting approach, encouraging state officials to focus more on prevention and treatment than on mass incarceration. On the other hand, federal prosecutions for drug-related offenses haven't changed much, and mandatory minimums still apply to federal drug sentencing — two areas to work on that would truly usher in a shift in the war on drugs.
Get tougher on the do-nothing Congress: We know you've tried to lead compromise talks between Republicans and Democrats, and you've admonished lawmakers for failing to reach consensus. Repeatedly. But when the government is under the threat of shutting down twice a year like clockwork, there's got to be some way to put a stop to the brinkmanship. We're not saying we have the solution, but in 2012, it would be great if you could work on figuring that out.
Continue to improve your communications game: Reflecting on the long slog to get health care and financial regulatory reform passed, in 2010 you admitted that you'd done less than a bang-up job on communications. "Leadership … is a matter of setting a tone," you said on 60 Minutes. "And making an argument that people can understand." We've noticed a change in tone, from your "We Can't Wait" initiative to do what you can without Congress, to accessible policy reports listing your accomplishments and straightforward appeals to the American public. Keep building and working on this. As you said yourself, leadership isn't just legislation.
Make us happy: We'd be remiss if we didn't push for that not completely realistic, overly ambitious resolution that we all set with the promise of a fresh start. In that spirit, make this the year you hit that political sweet spot where you're not assailed on both sides of the aisle for being either a radical left-wing socialist or a "black mascot of the Wall Street oligarchs." (And while you're at it, solve the riddle of the pyramids, too.)