President Obama has another three years on the job before retiring forever to
defending his record being an elder statesman. But, given the dismally unproductive legislature he’s dealing with, it doesn’t look like he’s going to spend his final term enacting sweeping changes. Broad consensuses on issues like immigration might achieve some reform, but even here the prospect is tenuous in the current Congress.
What, then, is an ambitious president to do? How would one leave his mark on the country?
The answer comes from a man named Jeh.
Jeh Johnson, the former top lawyer for the Defense Department, was recently nominated by Obama to serve as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and is part of the reason President Obama can still have a consequential second term.
Johnson was mostly involved in the political side of legal fights while at the Pentagon, pushing the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, ending military discrimination against gays. He also curbed some of the most egregious practices at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Most importantly, he publicly supported limiting drone strikes to top al-Qaeda leaders (but not holding back if they are US citizens) as a path to ending the War on Terror.
As such, Johnson represents the pragmatic reformer that Obama sees in himself. He wanted to get Guantanamo and drones right, but recognized their utility. This is also policy shown in national public opinion, reflecting a post-war on terror consensus about the morality of the nation’s security objectives and tactics. We don’t like terrorists and should try and stop them, but we don’t need to go overboard with our reaction to them.
More broadly, Johnson is the answer to Obama’s second-term blues because he represents the signature way the President can make a difference: nominations to run agencies.
Obama’s choices have already shown a pragmatic, but decidedly progressive, shift: Janet Yellen, the next chairwoman of the Federal Reserve clearly has more concern for the unemployed than inflation; Gina McCarthy, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency is the most aggressive opponent of coal Obama could find; Tom Perez, the secretary of Labor, is a known advocate against racial discrimination.
He isn’t nominating radicals, but the results will be long-term. McCarthy’s carbon ideas, for example, will effectively end new coal power plants.
Jeh Johnson represents the shift in the area of government that probably needs some of the most shifting: spying and anti-terrorism.
With recent reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) is
literally stealing your thoughts like a pensieve breaking into private companies’ servers and the phones of major world leaders, the person in charge of the agency, Keith Alexander, has both enormous power, and enormous political problems.
Alexander has also announced he will be stepping down in coming months. Who Obama chooses to replace him will make the new balance between technological openness and national security. Obama, the former constitutional law professor, hasn’t announced a decision, but will have to choose wisely.
What I’m Reading:
The best way to help the poor may just be to give them cash, no strings attached. —The Economist
If you want to find the root of America’s political dysfunction, look no further than the Founding Fathers and our empirically messed up Constitution. —Alex Seitz-Wald in The Atlantic
Economics and Public Policy-
Obamacare is making some people pay more for healthcare premiums, but it’s also giving them better options and better quality. —Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic
Charlie Crist has decided he doesn’t want to just be the “former” governor of Florida, and will also try to be the “future” governor as well. —Kyle Munzenrider in Miami New Times
We might not be undefeated, but at least the football team is making lots of money! —Brian Bandell in South Florida Business Journal