It’s really hard to convince someone to do something for somebody else—especially if you don’t know very much about who they are. It’s kind of like the way that President Barack Obama has shown he knows very little about Hispanic-Americans. So when I went went to American Heritage High School in Plantation, Fla., to ask students about the social policy priorities of Obama’s second term, I wasn’t surprised by their responses.
The “personal priorities” of these 17-year-olds from affluent families attending a prep school in South Florida were somewhat predictable. These put climate change and gay rights at the top of the list by a whopping 35 and 30 percent, respectively. What’s more interesting is that they put gun control as number three.
But then I turned the question around on them. I asked, “Forget about what you want and tell me what what you think the president should do strategically.”
Let me pause here for some reflection. First, on gun control. It’s a red-hot issue, but it’s also red meat for the base. That means if President Obama moves in a heavy-handed way to severely restrict gun rights in any way, the backlash will be swift, furious and, from a political perspective, completely unnecessary. Even if successful, an Obama win on gun control will give the NRA the sympathy it craves and the power to make life a living hell for the Democrats. Remember what the health care lobby did post Obamacare? Exactly.
Now let’s move on to gay rights, or more specifically, same sex marriage. It is very much an issue where the president has collected enormous amounts of political capital for a variety of reasons, including coming out in support of same sex couples’ right to marry in May of last year and now becoming the first president to mention gays in an inaugural speech and bring the matter front and center. Obama presently owns the issue, and it’s not like the LGBT community is looking for an excuse to vote Republican. So why make waves? In the end, this is one that will be decided by the courts, not the White House. And the president would be smart to not interfere.
Number three is climate change. Going to battle with Congress on this issue would be extremely messy. That’s why even environmental advocacy groups are telling the president to steer clear of turning this into a political hot potato. Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, is admitting that this is not a year one priority, warning supporters that “serious climate legislation isn’t in the cards this year.”That leaves us with comprehensive immigration reform, which with each passing day appears more and more possible. The headline in Wednesday’s Washington Post that elicited a multitude of collective “wows” from my colleagues around the country said it all: “Poll: Most back path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as Republican opposition declines.”The story goes on to say that more than 6 in 10 Americans now favor allowing undocumented immigrants to eventually become U.S. citizens, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. The story also points out that the major increase in support is driven by a turnaround in Republicans’ opinions after the 2012 elections.Which brings us back to my students when asked what the President should do strategically. These 17-year olds were able to put aside their own personal wants and needs and choose rationally what makes the most sense for the country. An overwhelming majority–62 percent–said the president should push first and foremost for comprehensive immigration reform that creates a pathway to citizenship for the the 6 to 10 million Latinos who are presently living in the shadows.Let’s hope the president takes on an issue that even 11th graders prioritize.