by Geoffrey Garrett
Barack Obama is back on the big reform march. Rather than being chastened by the epic healthcare battle that has borne little political fruit, Obama and the Democrats have upped the ante. They are now saying far-reaching legislation on finance, immigration and climate change must all pass before November's congressional elections, the midterm referendum on Obama's America.
But Obama's 2010 activism is very different from the public-good zeal of his first year. Giving more than 30 million Americans access to regular health care was historic. But the big reform did not move the political needle, because most Americans who vote already had healthcare coverage, and most of them liked the coverage they had
This year the name of the game is at least as much about good politics as it is about good policy, with the twin goals of staunching the inevitable Democrat bleeding in November and creating a platform for Obama's re-election in 2012.
With US unemployment stubbornly stuck near 10 per cent, Obama's approval rating below 50 per cent, and anti-incumbency and anti-Washington anger palpable, Obama and the Democrats know their focus must be on jobs for average Americans ravaged by the global financial crisis.
Problem is, they have few levers to improve the employment picture this year. Another massive stimulus package is implausible, with a budget already drowning in red ink. US interest rates are already near zero, leaving little room for further monetary expansion. Economic growth and the sharemarket are rebounding but recovery in jobs always lags well behind.
So signalling how much Obama and the Democrats share the anger and feel the pain of Main Street seems their best strategy, even if this does not translate into jobs before November.
Pushing anti-Wall Street financial reform against the theatrical backdrop of the Goldman Sachs witch-hunt is a perfect fit for Obama and the Democrats. Stopping banks gambling with other people's money, bringing derivatives and hedge funds under the regulatory tent, protecting consumers from the fallout, and making sure no banks are ''too big too fail'' would not only be the biggest financial reform since the Depression, it would also win support across the political spectrum.
Unified Republican opposition could thwart financial reform. But whereas the Republicans' ''just say no'' to Obama strategy played well with the Tea Partiers on healthcare, opposing financial reform risks alienating the party's populist base that is just as mad at Wall Street as it is at Washington for the mess the country is in.
After a year of being seen as too close to the villains of the financial crisis, Obama and the Democrats are desperate to convince Main Street they are on the side of regular Americans. Republicans will no doubt try to win concessions from the Democrats. But some level of bipartisanship in passing reform this year seems inevitable.
Immigration reform has rapidly risen to second place in the Democrats' agenda in reaction to Arizona's new harsh law against migrants who have illegally crossed the porous Mexican border. The Obama administration says it will fight the measure in court. Democrats in Congress say they will revive legislation to create a path to legal status for the more than 10 million undocumented Latino migrants.
While no one really thinks immigration reform can pass this year, raising the issue may help the Democrats in the midterm congressional elections.
Climate change has sunk to the bottom of the Democrats' agenda for the same reasons the Rudd government has postponed its emissions trading scheme. But in the US, the push for legislation remains because it is seen as being more about energy security and out-competing the Chinese.
Last year the Obama administration's unofficial dictum was never let a good crisis go to waste. Radical change on health and climate change were the order of the day even if they weren't popular in middle America. This year Obama's legislative docket is even longer. But it is much more tightly focused on winning votes in November and in 2012.
The depths of the recession, and the fact the government can't do much more to end it, are potentially crippling to Obama and the Democrats. Their new legislative activism is designed to limit the carnage.
Professor Geoffrey Garrett is chief executive of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.