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What Do We Want in 2017?

David Callahan

Barring some big surprise in the 2014 election, not much is likely to change in Washington until 2017. Modern presidents rarely get much done in their second terms, after they've spent their initial political capital and been battered by critics. The most important thing at this point is that President Obama secures the victories of his first term -- health reform first and foremost. Anything on top of that -- and plenty could go on top in the best case scenario -- would be gravy. 

But it's not too early for progressives to start dreaming big for 2017, when, hopefully, a progressive president arrives in office with a fresh supply of political capital and, ideally, a more receptive Congress. More than dreaming, it's time to start developing shovel ready blueprints that can be turned into policy in the first year or two of a new administration (before the window slams shut again).
So what should be at the top of the progressive agenda when and if a new window of opportunity opens in a few years? I'm sure everyone has their own wish list, but here's mine:
  • Healthcare Reform 2.0. A projected monumental rise in healthcare costs in coming decades remains the number one threat to America's fiscal future and a major impediment to economic growth both now and long-term. Yes, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, but the U.S. still spends nearly twice as much of its national wealth on healthcare than many of its global competitors. And individuals and businesses will still get creamed by high health insurance costs even with Obamacare. It's not enough to stop this burden from growing. We need to bring it down while we also pay for the care of the aging Boomers. That's a tall order. And the best bet for cutting costs is to have government truly dominate the healthcare market, which is how all the other advanced countries achieve their lower levels of spending for care that is often as good or better than what Americans get. I'll leave it up to the healthcare policy wonks to figure out the most feasible way to take another big step in this direction -- whether it's through a public option, an expansion of Medicaid and Medicare, or some version of the dreaded "single-payer system." Let me just stress here that healthcare reform 2.0 must happen.
  • Carbon Tax. Thanks to extreme weather, we are gradually moving toward a new climate change debate where the question is not whether to respond, but how to respond. Finally. The revelation that major corporations are already planning for the effects of climate change -- along with the agricultural sector -- underscores the shifting situation. The next president will have a chance to do something here, and my hope is that she or he will push a carbon tax, maybe in the context of sweeping tax reform. A number of conservatives are open to a carbon tax, believing that it's better to tax pollution than tax wealth and work, so this isn't pie in the sky. 
  • Kill the 401(k). America needs a new retirement system because the 401(k) has been an abysmal failure and Social Security doesn't provide enough of a safety net. The next president should move to dismantle the tax incentives and rules that spawned the 401(k) and create a new system of universal retirement accounts, managed through pooled investments, as Demos has proposed here.
  • Raise and Modernize Labor Standards. The new labor movement isn't going away, and 2017 may be the moment to translate its demands into major policy changes by raising and modernizing labor standards. That means not just a higher minimum wage, but also much stronger protections for the right to organize unions and a host of changes that recognize how many people work as consultants or otherwise not in the kind of traditional workplaces that prevailed when the current labor standards were invented. 
  • Downsize Wall Street. Dodd-Frank was a good start, but Wall Street still needs to be further reined in -- or, really, downsized altogether so that it poses less systemic risk to the economy and sucks less wealth out of the real economy and to the middlemen of finance, as Demos has argued here. Taxes on financial transactions would be helpful, along with a renewed push to break up the big banks. 
  • Increase Taxes. And speaking of taxes, the next president needs to reverse Barack Obama's historic mistake of allowing 85 percent of the Bush tax cuts to stand after the fiscal cliff standoff. Most Americans shouldn't be paying the lowest taxes in thirty years given the challenges we face. Further raising taxes on the affluent are needed, but it's also true that middle class Americans should go back to paying Clinton era tax rates. 
Obviously there's a lot more that can be added to this agenda, but achieving a few of these goals would be major. And the best way to ensure that change happens in 2017, is to map it out and push for it now.