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Obama's inbox

January 18, 2009
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NO PRESIDENT in recent memory has come into office with a to-do list as long as Barack Obama's. Certainly his first priority must be to fix the economy and get Americans working again. International flashpoints will demand his attention, and he must make good on the pledge to extricate US troops from Iraq. Still, after eight years of regressive policy on matters of health and justice, the pent-up demand for relief is explosive. And with a stronger Democratic Congress and an electorate ready for change, here are a few other agenda items that deserve a place on Obama's desktop.

Regulate tobacco
For years the Bush administration under-funded the Food and Drug Administration, and then argued that the agency wasn't robust enough to take on new responsibilities. Now Congress and Obama should authorize - and fund - the FDA's regulation of cigarettes and other tobacco products. Incredibly, cigarettes, though proven deadly, do not have to meet the same consumer-protection standards as many other products. If the FDA had authority over tobacco products, it could impose restrictions on marketing to teenagers; require the reduction or removal of addictive ingredients such as nicotine; and install larger, more effective warnings on cigarette packaging. Despite declines in smoking nationwide, tobacco use still kills 443,000 citizens a year and spikes healthcare costs by the billions. It should be regulated like a drug.

Lift the Cuba embargo
The economic embargo of Cuba is a Cold War vestige that should have been abandoned years ago. Obama and Congress ought to restore normal diplomatic relations with the island. There will be some yelps of complaint from inflexible congressional foes of normalization. But there are more and more Cuban-Americans who sense that the old policy has only served to entrench the rule of Fidel Castro and now of his brother Raul. It is the population of Cuba, not the government and security services, that suffers most from the embargo. The soundest way to encourage change in Cuba is to send American goods and tourists to that neighbor nation, planting seeds for a revolution of rising expectations.

Give DC equal representation.
Washington, D.C., has more residents than the state of Wyoming. They pay federal taxes and serve in the US military, but they do not have a voting representative in Congress. This aberration can be addressed without resorting to an amendment to the US Constitution, or even granting DC statehood, which President Clinton once promised to do. One way would be for Congress to pass legislation increasing the size of the US House by two seats - one for DC and one for some state reliably expected to balance the presumed Democratic tilt of the District - Utah, say. Such a bill passed the Senate by 57 to 42 in 2007: nearly enough to override a threatened Bush veto. Giving DC residents full representation in Congress may seem almost a gadfly issue. But America's new first lady is a descendant of slaves. Surely this White House understands the importance of every US citizen having an equal right to vote.

Amend the Defense of Marriage Act
This mean-spirited law, signed by President Clinton in 1996, allows individual states to deny rights to same-sex couples married in other states. But the law has another, more insidious side, which is that it also denies recognition to same-sex marriage under federal law. There are more than 1,000 different benefits - from filing joint income taxes to receiving Social Security payments - that are denied to same-sex couples everywhere in the country, whether their states allow them to marry or not. Also, gay Massachusetts residents cannot sponsor their legal spouses for immigration to the United States, since federal laws supersede the states on immigration. These inequities can be remedied even if Congress opts not to repeal the whole Defense of Marriage Act. If the law was meant to let individual states determine who has marriage rights, let them.

Scrub the bureaucracies
For those who believe that government can be a force for good in people's lives, it has been difficult to watch the Bush administration appoint people who are hostile to the mission of their own agencies. In environmental protection, in civil rights, in science and health, and in worker protections, political appointees repeatedly have tried to thwart or undermine the work of career professionals. One good example came in 2001, when the EPA raised the amount of allowable arsenic in drinking water after more than a decade of public hearings and scientific reviews had set a stricter standard. Incredibly, some of these indifferent political appointees have sought to remain in government by burrowing into the permanent bureaucracy. Obama needs Cabinet secretaries with the knowledge and will to broom them out.

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