Quickly and quietly, amid bailouts and Congressional hearings, Barack Obama is making his mark on some of the most perennially divisive issues in the country. It’s high time we took an issue-by-issue tour of the new team’s policy, to see what it’s accomplished so far, and what we can expect over the next four years. After the jump, we run down down some of the top contenders for hot-button status.
As Frank Rich noted, stem cells were, until recently, one of the definitive issues of the culture wars. After George W. Bush limited the number of embryonic lines available to scientists due to moral opposition, federal money for research quickly dried up, leaving progressive states such as California and Massachusetts to fund research themselves, thereby becoming the go-to destinations for biological innovation in the US. But without government backing, there was only so much they could accomplish. Frustration has been the dominant emotion for scientists working on stem cells over the past eight years, so it’s hard to overstate the significance of Barack Obama’s decision to make more embryonic lines available for research. A majority of Americans support the policy change, which may explain why opposition has been scant.
Before last year’s presidential election, the mere prospect of an Obama administration reportedly led to a sharp uptick in gun sales, as second-amendment advocates fretted that the Bush administration’s laissez faire attitude toward firearms would go the way of Guantánamo. Have gun owners’ worst fears been confirmed? Unless you enjoy hunting deer with an M16, not really. Yes, Attorney General Eric Holder recently came out in support of reinstituting the Assault Weapons Ban, which Bush let expire in 2004. And it’s possible that the Obama team will get a little stricter on various loopholes — assault-gun show licenses, background checks, etc. Still, gun rights remain a hugely divisive issue, particularly to new Congressional Democrats elected from formerly Republican districts in the South, Midwest, and West, meaning that any major legislation in the coming years is unlikely. Meanwhile, outside the administration’s sphere of control, a Supreme Court ruling purported to be a landmark for gun rights last year has had little practical effect thus far.
Domestically speaking, the Obama administration, which has positioned itself as slightly left of moderate on the issue — Obama has said he is pro-choice, but that he wants to reduce the number of abortions — doesn’t wield a great amount of power here; the courts are usually the most important policy arbiters. One change the administration did make was to nullify a controversial provision allowing medical providers to abstain from handing out birth control if they disagreed with the practice. In the grand scheme of things though, that pales in comparison to Obama’s almost immediate move to roll back the so-called “Mexico City policy” — Bush-era provisions that banned abortion from being included in American aid to foreign countries. Obama’s purposefully low-key signing promises to make a significant impact on how America distributes its foreign aid.
Since the kerfuffle over gay-unfriendly pastor Rick Warren’s appearance at Obama’s inauguration died down, it’s been uneventful sailing for the president on this front — with two exceptions. The first: the new administration backed a resolution supporting the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide. (Bush had refused to sign it, making the US the only Western country not to endorse the measure.) The second: a looming gay-rights showdown over lawsuits in California that seek to provide health insurance to same-sex couples including federal employees. The question isn’t exactly which side Obama will come down on, but how hard he’ll push to support the workers. Many believe he’ll be resistant to fight hard for same-sex benefits at a time when he needs Republican support on crucial economic issues.
Image: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi