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Seven Questions for Barack Obama

Congratulations, Mr. President. Now get to work.
January 21, 2009

As the inaugural crowds pack their bags and head home from Washington, suffused with the sense of having been part of history, the time has come for the media to pack away their superlatives and start treating Barack Obama like a president, not a monument. As Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin wrote yesterday:

We must assertively question Obama about what he’s doing, why he’s doing it and how he’s doing it. We should insist on answers to our questions. And we should aggressively examine those assertions that strikes us as dubious….

Obama’s promise to focus more on what’s best for the country obliges us to at least consider how he’s doing by that standard. We should hold Obama to his bold pledges. And if he keeps them, we should rise to the occasion. Rather than be too cynical, or focus too much on the superficial and the political, we should embrace an opportunity that we haven’t had in quite some time: To publicly explore the important issues and decisions facing our nation and our world.

In the spirit of exploration, we offer seven tough questions on seven perhaps-overlooked issues, questions that the press might consider asking in the weeks and months to come.

Will Obama be bold in his efforts to fix the economy?

Even casual business press readers are aware that the fate of the real economy hinges on dispelling the deep uncertainty that hangs over the banking system. A series of emergency measures by the Bush administration, bailouts in different forms, have failed to instill confidence that major institutions are, in fact, solvent. The question for the financial press is whether a bolder stroke—nationalization—is required, and whether the Obama administration is prepared to administer such a remedy. Calls for a temporary government takeover of big institutions have begun to come from influential columnists, including Paul Krugman in The New York Times
and Willem Buiter in the Financial Times. Will a consensus on bank nationalization form as it did, so quickly, on the need for a large economic stimulus? Stay tuned. –Dean Starkman

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Will he ignore immigration reform?

A recent AP article quoted Mexico expert George Grayson, a professor at the College of William & Mary, as saying, “The chance of having immigration reform is like having it snow in the dessert.” With two wars abroad and a tanking economy, the once-timely issue has, it’s true, taken a bit of a back seat. Pres. Obama’s agenda on immigration includes creating secure borders, bringing people “out of the shadows” and onto a path to citizenship, and working with Mexico to decrease illegal immigration. (His underreported meeting with Mexican president Felipe Calderon last Monday covered these points of discussion, alongside trade and drug violence.) The danger is that, in the face of more pressing issues, immigration reform will be neglected. That would be a mistake: immigration affects and informs too many other things, from labor economics to the war against drugs to education reform. So while the press should, obviously, monitor the administration’s stated goals, it should also—and perhaps more importantly—keep the discussion on the table by monitoring and reporting out the consequences of action (or inaction) through those other, more high profile lenses. –Jane Kim

Will he follow through on his promises to fund early childhood education?

On December 17, the New York Times reported on A-1 (headline: “Obama Pledge Stirs Hope in Early Education”) that “many advocates are atremble with anticipation over Mr. Obama’s espousal of early childhood education.” As I wrote back then:

It’s potentially a very big deal (“the $10 billion Mr. Obama has pledged for early childhood education would amount to the largest new federal initiative for young children since Head Start began in 1965.”) One can understand the hopeful anticipation that the Times reporter, Sam Dillon, found among those involved in early childhood education. To Scarborough’s point (I think) [On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough took the Times to task for the lack of skepticism in this piece], where’s the buzzkill “to be sure” paragraph in this piece? Where the reporter reminds readers that These Are Promises. Made By a Campaigning Politician (albeit one who truly does seem to hold early childhood education as a high priority). Confronting now a recession and so many larger (adult) hands also held out hopefully ($700 billion for banks. $10 billion for babies…) Hopefully the Times will also front-page what becomes of these promises. Keep in touch with these “advocates atremble with anticipation” and report back.

All of which bears repeating now. This, Obama’s pledge to invest $10 billion in early educational programs for children between zero and five, is one of many hundreds of campaign promises on which there has been “no action” to date, according to PolitiFact. We’ll be watching for Dillon and his peers on the education beat to follow when, whether, and how that changes in the months ahead.

As NPR reported earlier this month: “Obama’s education wish list may have to wait.”(“With the economy on life support and just about every state now slashing education funding, President-elect Obama is likely to focus less on his wish list and more on the political consensus he says he wants to build around education…”) And the $10 billion figure does not appear in the just-published-online official White House “Agenda”.

In other words: children between zero and five (not to mention those early childhood education advocates “atremble”) should probably anticipate less. On this issue, the press should be asking for more. –Liz Cox Barrett

Will he stand up to the teachers’ unions?

During the campaign, Obama suggested that he might, as many have urged him to do, “take on the [teachers’] unions.” His talk of performance pay (as opposed to tenure-based pay), in particular, hinted that the candidate, were he to become president, would risk angering—perhaps even alienating—one of the most powerful factions in Democratic politics. Once elected, Obama’s choice for Education Secretary—the reform-minded Arne Duncan—reiterated this inclination. And yet the vision for education that the new administration lays out now is…vague. While the plans specified—reforming NCLB, recruiting more teachers, and ensuring that they’re prepared for the challenges of the classroom—are commendable, those plans are also incredibly unclear about whether Obama and Biden will focus on teacher accountability, or whether the unions will remain an entrenched force in public education. As we’re seeing, it’s proving to be nearly impossible to have it both ways. And the dicey issue of merit pay gets the new administration’s most awkward dance-around treatment:

Obama and Biden will promote new and innovative ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them. Districts will be able to design programs that reward with a salary increase accomplished educators who serve as a mentors to new teachers. Districts can reward teachers who work in underserved places like rural areas and inner cities. And if teachers consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well.

This may mollify teachers—particularly the more established ones, whose long tenure has ensured them steadily increasing (though still often woefully low) salaries—but it should raise many questions in the minds of the media. Increased teacher pay, developed with teachers, not imposed on them, valued and rewarded as well, etc. are all well and good—but will the Obama administration value teacher merit enough to fight unions who want salary based on tenure, and tenure alone? Or to fight contracts that demand keeping even the most ineffective teachers in school systems until they retire (a good thing for those teachers, to be sure, but an incredibly bad thing for the kids they teach)? All questions in need of answers—and in need of asking. –Megan Garber

Will he reform drug policy?

Talk about the war on drugs was largely absent from campaign speeches, but it ought not remain so in the press during the next four years. Obama himself said he wanted to “give first-time, non-violent drug offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior.” What’s more, a recent editorial in The New York Times pointed out that white teenagers’ use of cocaine exceeds that of black teenagers by a factor of four to one. But a letter responding to the piece mentioned that the incarceration rates for drug offenses were inversely proportioned, with more blacks serving prison sentences than whites. The Plain Dealer of Cleveland recently exposed this disparity in an investigative series focused on convictions in Ohio’s Cuyahoga county. CJR urges reporters to follow in the Plain Dealer’s footsteps to pursue regional and national stories that assess the efficacy of current drug policies and seek expert input on how they can be reformed. —Katia Bachko

Will he mention the downsides of health IT?

In his inaugural address, the president did not talk about bringing health care within the reach of every American—a moral issue, according to some, akin to the civil rights struggle that made it possible for Obama to reach the highest office in the land. In his lone reference to health care, Obama said we would “wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost.” During the campaign, he hailed health IT as the savior for America’s health care dysfunction, touted it as if it were unvarnished goods, and promised that it would not only improve medical quality care but lower the price of health insurance by precisely $2,500.

The peril and the promise of health information technology cry out for careful scrutiny, an examination yet to be done by the press, of whether IT can really lower health care costs at what price to consumers who may have lots to lose from its implementation. It is a big story. In the first of our Excluded Voices series, Yale professor Ted Marmor, an expert on U.S. health care, said “No other industrialized democracy has hit a cost control home run with information technology, and it’s provincial of us to think so,” adding it “might cost a fortune and become a boondoggle.” Indeed, New York Times reporter Robert Pear made that point Sunday, when he wrote “So far, the only jobs created have been for a small army of lobbyists trying to secure money for health information technology.”

Pear went further and described the coming battle between technology proponents hungry for profit and patient and consumer groups worried about a lack of privacy controls. For example, will insurers check a person’s pharmaceutical history and reject those who use too many expensive drugs? Will those using costly drugs be easy prey for companies wanting to sell the expensive stuff because they will now know exactly who their customers are?

For those eager to wade into this thicket, here are some more questions to explore:

• What privacy provisions are needed?

• How will those opposing such provisions wage the war?

• How will the different systems now on the market talk to one another? If your electronic medical record at the doctor’s office doesn’t work with the one in the ER when you’re brought in with a heart attack, what good is it?

• Who is making money from health IT? That journalistic maxim “follow the money” is important here.

• How will IT really lower costs without serious cost control measures used in other countries?

• What will make the nation’s autonomous and independent-minded health-care providers embrace the helpful aspects of the new technology?

Finally, let’s start by explaining to our audiences just what we mean by health information technology. Perhaps a lexicon is in order. –Trudy Lieberman

Will his “clean energy revolution” be a practical one?

Science and environment writers have long worked in relative newsroom obscurity, disconnected from mainstream politics, business, and culture. It is for their beat, more than any other, that Barack Obama’s inauguration signals a new prominence and relevance. The new president’s commitment to a clean energy revolution is one of the most expansive and challenging stories of our time. It will be science and environment reporters’ responsibility to inject more practicality into their coverage of that effort, however.

First and foremost, reporters must identify the tools that we have and the tools we need to accomplish such vast change in the global energy economy. Time magazine, for example, recently published a persuasive piece arguing that the United States could make significant progress by simply using efficient technologies already on the market. Its only shortcoming was that it did not address the opinion of many well respected scientists—including the new Energy Secretary, Steven Chu—who believe that the world needs new technologies to get the job done.

When covering those tools that still lie on our energy horizon, however, reporters must be careful to avoid sensationalism and defeatism alike. We recently criticized CNN for overselling an immature and fringe energy technology, but, likewise, outlets must not be afraid to revisit new and better generations of previously disappointing technologies like ethanol and batteries. In addition to these sources of energy, journalists must also pay more attention to our energy infrastructure. A “smart” national energy grid and an efficient passenger rail system are two of the obvious components of that infrastructure. A more inconspicuous, but no less important, piece of that infrastructure is our educational system and the need, as The New York Times has incisively put it, to inspire a culture of “innovation.”

Along the those lines, science and environment reporters need to communicate all of this practical information to their colleagues in politics, business, and other departments. Indeed, energy is revealing itself to be the most common denominator in the newsroom, crossing nearly every beat from healthcare to national security. President Obama seems to get that. As always, it is the press’s job to make sure. –Curtis Brainard

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.