The Second Coming

What can the 44th president really achieve in his second term? Here are 10 ideas.

By , a former deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

If you were to print out all the white papers, op-eds, and think-tank reports urging U.S. President Barack Obama to do this or that in his second term, the sheer amount of paper produced would probably require chopping down the Amazon rain forest. There’s a reason these well-intentioned ideas generally sit on the shelf: They’re unrealistic. Wave a magic wand, and the president can do everything from make peace in the Middle East to reshape the entire world economy in America’s favor. What follows is something different: advice he can actually implement.

Jody Williams: Stop Using Land Mines and Cluster Munitions

George Papandreou: Save Greece, Save Europe

John Prendergast: Get Kony

Kenneth Roth: Dump These 8 Unsavory Allies

David E. Hoffman: Take the Nukes off Alert

Zbigniew Brzezinski: Get His Authority Back

Gal Luft: Kill the Oil Monopoly

Gernot Wagner: Cut Power Plant Pollution

Edward P. Joseph: Make a Trade Deal with Europe

Micah L. Sifry: Fix American Democracy 

Previous: Micah L. Sifry on why Obama should fix American democracy. 

Jody Williams: Stop Using Land Mines and Cluster Munitions

In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize because, according to the committee, “His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.” In his second term, Obama must embrace that promise — by taking steps to ensure that the United States is no longer an outlier when it comes to global agreements on peace and disarmament. He should start by sending the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty to the Senate for approval and by taking action to do away with America’s own arsenal of mines, whether the Senate approves it or not.

Obama was elected president in 2008 in part because of his sweeping calls to confront world problems that transcend borders. In his second term, what could be a stronger statement of support for multilateral diplomacy than joining the 161 countries — including every other NATO country and every nation in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba — already party to the Mine Ban Treaty? It’s very doable.

Indeed, it’s hard to understand why Obama hasn’t done so yet. The United States already follows most of the key provisions in the Mine Ban Treaty. It has not exported mines since 1992, hasn’t produced them since the mid-1990s, has already begun destroying stockpiles, and has not used antipersonnel land mines in two decades. These weapons are a deadly legacy that should never be used again.

Antipersonnel land mines cannot discriminate among the footfall of a soldier, a child, a grandmother — or an animal, for that matter. Once deployed, the mines remain lethal for generations, long outlasting any military need. With the end of fighting, virtually all land-mine casualties are civilians; hundreds of thousands of people have fallen victim to their scourge. And because they are both indiscriminate and disproportionate in their impact on civilians, they may be illegal under international law even without the Mine Ban Treaty, which completely prohibits the use, production, and stockpiling of such weapons.

The Obama administration announced a review of U.S. land-mine policy in late 2009, but has been slow to release the results. Still, there’s reason to think ratification stands a good chance of passage in the Senate. In 2010, 68 senators — more than the two-thirds majority needed to ratify the treaty — wrote to the president urging him to support the global ban.

Even if the Senate fails to act, however, Obama can still fulfill the obligations of the treaty using the powers of the White House. The current U.S. position — pending the now three-year-old review ordered by the president — is to oppose “dumb mines,” which can lie in wait for decades, but continue to support so-called “smart mines,” which are meant to self-destruct or deactivate after a certain period. The problem is that smart mines are just as unable to distinguish between civilian and military targets, are not fail-safe, and pose an equal threat to innocent bystanders.

Without waiting for Senate action, Obama could extend the current U.S. prohibition to cover smart mines and accelerate the destruction of the U.S. mine arsenal, which once stood at more than 10 million mines. He could also release the number of mines that have been destroyed during his administration — a figure that has not yet been made public. A mine-ban policy in accordance with international law and Senate ratification would remain the goal, but there’s no reason to wait.

Beyond land mines, the president could begin to rid the world of another senseless danger: cluster munitions. These large weapons are deployed from the air or the ground, and they release dozens or even hundreds of smaller explosive submunitions, putting civilians at far greater risk than from conventional explosives. Children have been known to mistake them for toys. Obama should order an immediate review of cluster-munitions policy, with a mind to joining the 2008 international convention banning cluster munitions. The United States already plans to ban all but a tiny fraction of its cluster-munition arsenal by 2018 under a policy announced by the Pentagon in 2008. Why not simply eliminate them all now?

Despite some promising steps toward ridding the world of deadly weapons, like the president’s nuclear arms treaty with Russia, his first term was, unfortunately, defined more by the dramatic increase in the use of drones and the ongoing development of a lethal new category of conventional weapons — completely autonomous robotic weapons — than by the elimination of threats to humanity.

Obama began his first term by receiving a prize he did not yet deserve. By finally making land mines history, he can start his second four years by beginning to earn it.

Jody Williams, founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.

Next: George Papandreou on why Obama should save Greece and Europe.

Jalil Rezayee/EPA

Previous: Jody Williams on why Obama should stop using land mines and cluster munitions.

George Papandreou: Save Greece, Save Europe

During a different era of American leadership on the European continent, U.S. diplomats and dollars midwifed an audacious political project, one that sought to end war and usher in prosperity. With Soviet tanks looming across the Iron Curtain, European prosperity would prevent the spread of communism and balance Soviet power in the East. The fruits of this project would primarily be economic, but its basis was firmly political — a broadly accepted consensus that European wars must be brought to an end and that the horrors of World War II must never be revisited. This was an idealism tempered by Cold War logic, and it was the greatest triumph in American 20th-century diplomacy. Today, that European project finds itself under threat, and the moment requires a return of American leadership. Only Europe can lead the way out of this crisis, but in his second term, President Obama needs to help save Europe from itself.

The first step has to be saving Greece. Time and again, my country has pledged fealty to the prevailing European doctrine of harsh austerity, but for the world bond markets, it seems, we can never cut deeply enough. The reason is a crisis of confidence: Prevailing uncertainty over whether Greece will remain in the eurozone has crippled our economy, eliminating the prospect of any business activity until the problem is solved — thus almost guaranteeing that it never is. Europe has to say, “The crisis ends here. Greece is part of the eurozone, full stop.”

To make such a declaration credible, however, it needs the backing of the world’s largest and still most dynamic economy. Here’s where Obama comes in. The U.S. president can help solve the European crisis with the kind of deft economic diplomacy that has admittedly eluded his administration to date.

America’s greatest successes in Europe have mostly been projects of integration, from supporting the creation of the European Union to the reunification of Germany. Reclaiming that mantle requires that Obama and his diplomats publicly declare their faith in a more integrated Europe. Above all, Obama must remind the German people of how the United States stood by Germany not only throughout the Cold War, but through the tumultuous decade that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. And he must persuade German Chancellor Angela Merkel to do whatever it takes to make Europe work — and assure her that the American people will once again help.

Obama’s team, led by the Treasury Department, has urged Europeans to take decisive steps, from funding infrastructure projects to collectivizing debt, to restore growth to sagging European economies. European leaders have rebuffed those entreaties, viewing the Americans as hypocritical for exporting their financial crisis to Europe while also telling European officials how they should respond to it — without bringing any of their own still-considerable resources to bear.

We’re not asking for handouts. Along with an end to the uncertainty that is crippling our economy, what Greece needs most of all is investment: investment in a Greece that is changing and in a Greece that has great potential.

And it’s not just Greece. From Southern Europe to North Africa, the Mediterranean basin, a part of the world that is critical to U.S. national security, is in transition. Obama could dispatch high-level business delegations, sending a powerful message about the region’s investment opportunities. But Obama could set his sights even higher. One of his predecessors, Dwight Eisenhower, famously said, “If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” So it is with us: Obama should throw his weight behind a major energy, diplomatic, and peace initiative linking the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Europe through energy cooperation. That effort could include both existing and recently discovered conventional resources, but would also target investment in a new grid for clean, renewable energy — one of the Mediterranean’s most plentiful, yet largely untapped, resources. Such a “Green Marshall Plan” would be important not just in economic terms, but also in its potential to support and expand democracy. What is needed most of all is the vision.

Finally, to help revitalize a country that has a deep history with the United States, a visit to Greece, in support of the Greek people’s potential, would be a true vote of confidence in Greece and Europe’s capacity to resolve the eurocrisis.

Obama is fond of invoking the grand sweep of history. He wants to be remembered as a consequential president. What better way to secure his legacy than to hitch it to the Democrats who began the European project: FDR, Truman, and Kennedy?

George Papandreou is former prime minister of Greece.

Next: John Prendergast on why Obama should get Kony.

Alexandros Vlachos/EPA

Previous: George Papandreou on why Obama should save Greece and Europe.

John Prendergast: Get Kony

Before “Gangnam Style,” there was the viral Kony 2012 video, which made Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony the world’s best-known international war criminal overnight. But the man himself remains at large in the jungles of Central Africa. The human toll mounts as children continue to be press-ganged by Kony’s followers into service as soldiers, porters, and sex slaves. The LRA’s strength may be a fraction of what it was a decade ago, but with reports of increased support from the group’s longtime friend, the Sudanese government, the LRA still poses a major threat not only to civilians but, if Khartoum’s support grows, to the overall stability of the four countries where the LRA has conducted attacks. If President Obama wants to make the world a better place and burnish his legacy, then apprehending Kony — a man believed to be responsible for the forced conscription of tens of thousands of kids — would be a good start. This is a winnable war, and if the United States, regional governments, and others build on the momentum already established, the LRA could be history by the end of 2013.

But getting the job done in the president’s second term will take more than publicity. It will take an enhanced strategy.

So far, efforts against the LRA have been inadequate. One problem is that they have been led by the Ugandan army (whose own human rights record is complicated); although the United States deployed 100 military advisors to assist the Ugandans, these troops are not authorized to fight the LRA. Other regional countries have made token contributions to the effort, which recently came under the African Union (AU) umbrella. But the AU has so far mustered only 3,000 of its intended 5,000 deployed troops, and too few Ugandan soldiers are in too wide an area without adequate air transport, human intelligence networks, or physical access to where the LRA actually is. While the LRA operates in a vast area equivalent to the size of Arizona, the Ugandan army is deployed in a much smaller area the size of West Virginia. Besides, interviews the Enough Project conducted with civilians from the area as well as with former LRA combatants suggest that the Sudanese government is allowing Kony a base and haven in South Darfur.

Here are three things Obama and his team can do to really bring Kony to justice:

First, Obama needs to strengthen the existing effort to weaken the LRA. This will require more African forces where the LRA is actually operating, backed by expanded human intelligence networks through improved programs to support defectors and more international support for affected communities.

Second, Obama should push for a high-level diplomatic initiative to be launched by the AU and the United Nations to gain access to the areas of the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan that are currently LRA safe havens. If the regime in Khartoum continues to deny access, stronger measures — such as U.N. targeted sanctions, an investigation into those providing sanctuary to Kony, and cross-border operations inside Sudan under the international “responsibility to protect” doctrine — should be considered.

Third, Obama should help the AU build an elite special-operations unit — trained, equipped, and working in close cooperation with U.S. military advisors — to directly target Kony and his top deputies. Although some rebel groups continue operating after their leader is removed from the battlefield, the LRA is so tied to Kony’s personality and leadership that his demise or capture would most likely put an end to the group’s activities.

With bipartisan support and hundreds of thousands of young Americans unexpectedly providing political space for a more robust U.S.-Africa partnership through the surprising viral advocacy of the Kony 2012 movement, Obama should move to bolster the campaign against this vicious predatory militia now. Good politics and good policy rarely intersect so conveniently.

John Prendergast, author of Unlikely Brothers, is co-founder of the Enough Project and the Satellite Sentinel Project.

Next: Kenneth Roth on why Obama should dump eight unsavory allies.


Previous: John Prendergast on why Obama should get Kony.

Kenneth Roth: Dump These 8 Unsavory Allies

During the U.S. presidential campaign, challenger Mitt Romney famously accused President Obama of having “thrown allies like Israel under the bus.” It was an odd characterization of a policy that saw Obama make a brief, abandoned effort to limit settlement expansion, no serious attempt to stop the Jim Crow-like separate-and-unequal treatment of Palestinians in Israeli-controlled parts of the West Bank, and a determined push to ensure that the International Criminal Court won’t get jurisdiction over war crimes in Palestinian territory.

But plenty of governments deserve, if not being directed to the bus, at least being shown the door when it comes to unconditional U.S. support. So-called realists will offer the usual rationalizations for ignoring that prescription. Their view of the national interest, however, is outdated in a world where modern communications make it easy for people to coalesce around grievances and perilous for governments to ignore them. The Arab Spring showed nothing if not the folly of relying on strongmen to bring stability.

In this new world, standing up for human rights reflects not only America’s values but also its interests. It should be at the heart of U.S. policy, not an option of convenience. If Obama wants to bolster his legacy in his second term, he can and should get tough on some of the United States’ most unsavory friends and allies. Here is a good start:

Afghanistan: As the Pentagon bows out, it is counting on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to see through the planned 2014 transition. But the Obama administration hasn’t used its considerable leverage to dissuade Karzai from undermining women’s rights, appointing an alleged torturer as intelligence chief, tolerating rampant corruption, and blocking efforts to hold accountable his warlord allies.


During the 2005 uprising in the town of Andijan, President Islam Karimov ordered troops to surround the demonstrators and shoot everyone in sight. Hundreds were slaughtered. His government routinely tortures dissidents and imprisons them for 15 or 20 years. Some have even been boiled alive. Yet the Obama administration soft-pedals his brutality — and waived restrictions on selling him military equipment — because Uzbekistan provides an alternative to Pakistan for resupplying the troops in Afghanistan. Especially as this rationale disappears, the Faustian bargain should end. 

Cambodia: In 28 years as prime minister, Hun Sen has presided over the killing of countless political opponents while increasing his control of the army, police, and courts. But the Obama administration has done little to discourage him from building a one-party state, such as insisting that exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy be allowed home without fear of arrest, and has placed no conditions on increased military ties or aid. Cambodia is where Obama should demonstrate that his Asian “pivot” isn’t a competition with China for the loyalty of autocrats but a vision for Asian democracy.


Led by President Paul Kagame, the Rwandan government has long benefited from Washington’s genocide guilt (Bill Clinton’s administration sat on its hands during the 1994 massacre of more than half a million people) and admiration for its progress rebuilding the country. But the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which became the national army, itself murdered tens of thousands of civilians in the 1990s; the government uses detention and violence to shut down political opposition; and the military, despite persistent government denials, has actively supported a succession of rebel groups in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the U.S. Congress’s insistence, the Obama administration has finally suspended some military aid to Rwanda, but it continues to run political interference for the government and downplay its crimes, most recently its military support for the murderous M23 rebellion in eastern Congo.

Ethiopia: Washington had a blind spot for growing repression under the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died in August. In return for Ethiopia’s help fighting terrorism and battling al-Shabab militants in Somalia, the Obama administration muffled its criticism of the security forces’ war crimes and the government’s restrictions on civil society, detention of journalists, violence against demonstrators, and pursuit of development policies that penalize political opponents.

Saudi Arabia: Yes, it has lots of oil. But the Saudis, who need cash to fuel their welfare state, are going to sell it regardless of how Obama treats them. Meanwhile, the Saudi monarchy holds thousands in arbitrary detention, imposes archaic restrictions on women, suppresses most dissent, mistreats its Shiite minority, and insists that the neighboring Bahraini monarchy crush its pro-democracy movement. Obama has been silent.


Saudi Arabia’s next-door neighbor is the most glaring exception to Obama’s generally supportive posture toward Arab Spring demonstrators. The ruling Al Khalifa family uses lethal force, torture, and arbitrary detention to crush protests. Yet out of deference to Saudi sensibilities and fear of losing the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet base, the Obama administration has allowed its security relationship with Bahrain to trump its concern for the rights of Bahrainis — a selectivity that undermines its broader support for Arab freedom.

Mexico: The country’s drug cartels have committed horrific crimes, but so have the security forces that former President Felipe Calderón sent to combat them. Obama routinely praised Calderón’s “great courage” in fighting the cartels with nary a word about widespread military and police abuses. Instead, the administration has sent some $2 billion to support Mexico’s counternarcotics efforts, despite ample evidence of human rights violations and security forces so corrupt that the Mexican government has turned to its navy to crack down on the cartels.

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Next: David E. Hoffman on why Obama should take the nukes off alert.


Previous: Kenneth Roth on why Obama should dump eight unsavory allies.

David E. Hoffman: Take the Nukes off Alert

In a nuclear crisis, the U.S. secret war plan calls for the president to decide in just 13 minutes what he should do in the event there is a serious warning of a missile attack. That’s right: 13 minutes to decide the fate of the world. President Obama has the power to change that in his second term, living up to a campaign promise he made, by the way, back in 2008. It won’t be as simple as a pen stroke, but with some creative thinking and deft diplomacy, Obama could make the world much, much safer by eliminating this Cold War hangover.

During their decades-long confrontation, both Americans and Soviets set their land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles to be ready for prompt launch. The United States had to threaten certain and large-scale retaliation against the Soviet Union to deter attack. Now, that rationale has evaporated. Yet U.S. land-based missiles remain ready to launch just four minutes after the president gives the order, and submarine launches only a few minutes longer. Presumably, Russia has a similar alert posture.

Why? The only reason is that the other side still does it. Nothing more.

Obama affirmed the absurdity of this in his 2008 campaign when he pledged to take the missiles off launch-ready alert. Then, once in office, he inexplicably dropped the proposal. Admittedly, the military has never been very fond of the idea. Its biggest worry is that in a crisis, a re-alerting arms race would take place, a rush to Armageddon. (The fear is that putting them back on alert would create uncertainty and instability that is just as dangerous as keeping them on alert all the time.)

But there is a way out. To start, the president could order a high-level study on how to achieve de-alerting with Russia. He could even ask President Vladimir Putin to send officers to join. Already, a lot of good ideas have been floated about the means to accomplish this. Software modifications could be used for short delays, or the warheads could be physically separated from the missiles, known as “demating,” to lengthen the time before a missile could be launched.

Nor does it have to be every last missile. Just in case, perhaps, a dozen missiles could remain on prompt-launch posture, while the rest could be de-alerted. Today, the United States and Russia each have about 800 to 900 warheads on prompt-launch alert at any given time. Overkill, anyone?

The hard part would be verification to prevent cheating. But perhaps Russia and the United States could find a way to use on-site inspection. Or what about a secure webcam focused 24/7 on the warheads in storage? The most stringent verification measures ever attempted are being effectively implemented under New START, the nuclear arms pact Obama signed during his first term. There must be a way to use these methods for de-alerting. A joint U.S.-Russia commission could figure it out.

Unfortunately, the president can’t just throw a switch to get Russia’s cooperation, which is essential. Both sides must stand down together. (China doesn’t keep its nuclear-armed missiles on such a high state of alert.) And make no mistake, there will be pushback. The military establishments in both countries want to keep the guns cocked, and they will resist change. But that’s no reason to let this dangerous Cold War relic persist.

David E. Hoffman is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy and author of The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

Next: Zbigniew Brzezinski on why Obama should get his authority back.

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Previous: David E. Hoffman on why Obama should take the nukes off alert.

Zbigniew Brzezinski: Get His Authority Back

The central challenge now facing President Obama is how to regain some of the ground lost in recent years in shaping U.S. national security policy. Historically and politically in America’s system of separation of powers, the president has the greatest leeway for decisive action in foreign affairs. The country views him as responsible for Americans’ safety in an increasingly turbulent world — the ultimate definer of the goals that the United States should pursue through its diplomacy, economic leverage, and, if need be, military compulsion. And the world sees him — for better or worse — as the authentic voice of America.

To be sure, Congress has a voice. So does the public. And so do vested interests and foreign-policy lobbies. Congress’s role in declaring war is especially important not when the United States is the victim of an attack, but when the United States is planning to wage war. Because America is a democracy, public support for presidential foreign-policy decisions is essential. But no one in the government or outside it can match the president’s authoritative voice when he speaks and then acts decisively.

This is true even in the face of determined opposition. Even when some lobbies succeed in gaining congressional support for their particular foreign clients in defiance of the president, for instance, many congressional signatories still quietly convey to the White House their readiness to support the president if he stands firm for “the national interest.” And a president who is willing to do so publicly, while skillfully cultivating friends and allies on Capitol Hill, can then establish such intimidating credibility that it is politically unwise to confront him. This is exactly what Obama must do now.

Obama needs to think carefully about his second-term agenda. What kind of legacy does he want to leave? And here, what not to do is just as important as what to do. A president who aspires to be recognized as a global leader should not stake out a foreign-policy goal, commit himself eloquently to its attainment, and then yield the ground when confronted by firm opposition. The bottom line is that — whether dealing with Russia’s antagonistic Vladimir Putin, the increasingly self-confident leadership of a dramatically rising China, the elusive and evasive Iranians, or the so-called Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” — Obama’s success will depend on the degree to which he is seen as truly committed and dead serious. Commitment and credibility go hand in hand.

For example, on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the unfortunate fact is that under the last three presidents, U.S. policy has been either sincere but gutless, or simply cynical. The recent U.N. vote granting Palestine nonmember observer-state status, in which the United States — despite its intense efforts — obtained the support of only eight states out of a total 188 voting or abstaining, marks a nadir of sorts, showing the dramatically declined global respect for the U.S. capability to cope with an issue that is morally troubling today and, in the long run, explosive. It dramatizes the consequences for the United States of declined bipartisanship in foreign affairs and the increased influence of lobbies, thus underlining the need for assertive presidential leadership.

A president has two moments of grand opportunity. The first occurs during his initial year because by the fourth year, any attained success will erase the political costs incurred earlier. If he is reelected, the second opportunity arises in the first year of the second term — only this time history, not the public, will henceforth be his ultimate judge. Obama has demonstrated a genuinely incisive intellectual grasp of the new challenges that America confronts on the world scene. But he needs to be a leader now. He may never have a better chance to shape what future historians write about his legacy.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor under U.S. President Jimmy Carter, is author most recently of Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power.

Next: Gal Luft on why Obama should kill the oil monopoly.

Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post

Previous: Zbigniew Brzezinski on why Obama should get his authority back.

Gal Luft: Kill the Oil Monopoly

Until the early 19th century, salt was among the world’s most valuable commodities due to its monopoly over food preservation. It was Napoleon who diminished salt’s strategic status by declaring a cash prize that triggered the invention of canning. Refrigeration soon followed, and within a decade salt lost its status forever. With a simple bill requiring no subsidies, costly tax breaks, or Solyndra-style government giveaways, President Obama can deliver the same fate to oil, allowing Americans for the first time in a century to choose what to put in their tanks.

Most cars sold in the United States — roughly 14 million annually — are allowed under their warranties to run on nothing but oil: gasoline and, in some cases, diesel. Due to this virtual monopoly, oil has taken on inordinate strategic importance, and oil prices have a significant economic impact. Oil-price spikes have the power to reduce consumer confidence, trigger recessions, and inflate the country’s trade deficit. Were drivers able to respond to high oil prices by switching from gasoline to less costly fuels, oil’s importance would be greatly diminished. But they can’t.

America’s natural gas glut provides an example of the potential benefit of the ability to switch fuels. A technological revolution has unlocked an enormous amount of natural gas, and prices have collapsed to the point where natural gas is now one-fifth as cheap as oil per unit of energy. This means that at today’s prices, driving a car on a natural gas-derived fuel would be like driving it on the equivalent of under-$20-per-barrel oil. Yet because most vehicles are not equipped to run on natural gas, less than 1 percent of America’s natural gas supply is used as automotive fuel.

When automobiles were first developed a century ago, a variety of fuels was used. Some cars were electric, some ran on steam, and others on alcohols. Low oil prices during the 20th century, however, killed the competition, and automakers had no reason to certify cars to run on anything but gasoline. The spike in oil prices over the past decade has finally changed the economics of oil in favor of other commodities, but automakers haven’t caught up with this reality. Today, it’s nearly impossible to obtain a car running on anything other than gasoline.

Compressed-natural-gas vehicles and electric vehicles — one-third of U.S. electricity is currently generated from natural gas — are slowly making their way into the marketplace. But battery-powered cars remain prohibitively expensive for most car buyers. A natural gas-derived liquid fuel called methanol (wood alcohol), however, is both substantially less expensive than gasoline on a per-mile basis and very cheap to enable on the vehicle side — roughly $100 extra per new car.

Essentially, all that is needed for a regular car to be a flexible-fuel car are a fuel sensor and a corrosion-resistant fuel line. In some provinces of China, where methanol is made primarily from coal, this alcohol is sold at numerous fuel stations. This logic is one thing even Iran and Israel can agree on: Both natural gas-rich countries have plans to begin selling methanol-based fuel at gas stations.

Obama, who pointed out during his campaign that America is “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” can break oil’s stranglehold over America’s transportation sector by sending Congress a simple, no-subsidy, open-fuel-standard bill that would ensure that new vehicles sold in the United States are open to some sort of fuel competition. The law would allow automakers to choose whether they want to go the least costly route — liquid-fuel choice — or some other pathway. The new vehicles would then create the demand that would spur increases in the production capacity of competing fuels. Even without Congress, the president could also take the symbolic step of mandating that the federal government purchase fuel-flexible vehicles.

Best of all, from the perspective of the president’s political advisors, support for such a move would be genuinely bipartisan. Co-sponsors for an open-fuel-standard bill in 2011 ran the gamut from liberals like California’s Rep. Brad Sherman to Tea Party favorites like Iowa’s Rep. Steve King. With backing from the increasingly powerful alternative-fuels lobby, as well as national security hawks like former CIA Director James Woolsey and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, this could be one energy proposal that Republicans who would never touch a carbon tax or cap and trade would be willing to sign on to.

Thanks to the rise of cheap, plentiful alternatives, the end of the age of oil may be closer than we realize. With a simple market-based solution, Obama can get the United States ready for what comes next.

Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and advisor to the U.S. Energy Security Council, is co-author of Petropoly: The Collapse of America’s Energy Security Paradigm.

Next: Gernot Wagner on why Obama should cut power plant pollution.

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Previous: Gal Luft on why Obama should kill the oil monopoly.

Gernot Wagner: Cut Power Plant Pollution

Let’s get one thing out of the way: No president, and no country, can stop global warming single-handedly. Even slowing it is tough. President Obama isn’t going to halt the rise of the oceans in his second term. And with Congress hostile to cap and trade and most other ideas for slowing, let alone rolling back, global warming, it will be difficult for him to do what’s necessary.

The planet, of course, isn’t interested in excuses, not when the Arctic is turning free of summer sea ice some 50 years ahead of schedule. If Obama wants to make real progress, he’s going to need to use every rhetorical skill in the playbook to tell Americans that this issue matters for their lives. And he’s going to need to get creative.

The president can start by setting an example in his own house, quite literally. Based on Executive Order 13514, signed in October 2009, Obama established a 28 percent emissions-reduction goal for the federal government by 2020. While working toward this goal, the administration should take the opportunity to implement a tried-and-true market approach: Follow the lead of some big corporations like Microsoft and make each part of the government financially accountable for its greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on carbon dioxide — at least the roughly $20 per ton established by the federal government’s own interagency working group as the single best value. That would allow the government to meet its overall target the most cost-effective way possible.

Why would that work? Look no further than a few feet from Obama’s doorstep. In 2010, the city of Washington imposed a 5-cent fee on disposable bags — and it has worked, cutting their use by 80 percent within a year by some estimates. (Ireland’s 15-euro-cent fee introduced in 2002 slashed bag use more than 90 percent — a billion bags a year.) It teaches a valuable economics lesson: Incentives get results.

But barring a deal with Congress — not to mention a global climate deal with real teeth — that could make such smart incentives possible, how can Obama achieve the maximum amount of overall carbon reductions? It turns out he has many ways to make a real and appreciable difference.

Obama should look to the time-tested Clean Air Act of 1970 and its 1990 amendments, both passed with large bipartisan majorities and signed into law by Republican presidents. The 1990 amendments gave the country cap and trade for sulfur dioxide, a resounding success story that started to combat acid rain — in record time and under budget. He ought to use the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon dioxide as well. The president’s legal authority on that is clear.

In 2007, the Supreme Court, ruling against a then-reluctant Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), found that carbon dioxide is indeed an air pollutant. In 2009, the EPA determined carbon was dangerous enough to require regulation under the Clean Air Act, a decision since affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

If Congress refuses to act, Obama ought to spur the EPA’s regulatory efforts. These fall chiefly into three areas: transportation, power plants and other stationary sources, and methane leakage.

During his first term, the EPA strengthened greenhouse gas and fuel-economy standards for cars to achieve a fleetwide average of 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025 — nearly doubling the number of miles the average car can go on a gallon of fuel. Obama ought to build on that to decrease carbon pollution from transportation more broadly, beginning with vehicles ranging from 18-wheelers to commercial delivery trucks.

Power plants pollute even more than cars, and new standards for plants, especially existing ones, could deliver even more climate benefits. Newly cheap natural gas extracted from shale formations is already making new coal plants uneconomic. Continually strengthened Clean Air Act standards could show that natural gas is truly a bridge to a cleaner energy future, not a way to get addicted to yet another fossil fuel.

Natural gas, of course, is no panacea. It produces half as much carbon dioxide as coal when burned, but natural gas is mostly methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, especially in the short term — decades rather than centuries. Getting methane leakage under control is essential. If too much leaks from the supply chain, whatever advantage natural gas has over coal could be erased. Without going to Capitol Hill, Obama can further tighten methane-leakage standards to ensure the shale gas revolution does, in fact, decrease the power sector’s global warming impact.

Obama’s climate policy has been lucky as much as it has been good. Through a combination of cheap natural gas, increased use of the Clean Air Act, and state action, the United States is almost on track to achieving Obama’s declared goal of decreasing carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Achieving that goal, however, won’t happen automatically. It will require using the Clean Air Act to rein in the worst offenders. Moreover, Obama’s long-term goal of reducing emissions 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050 cannot be met by executive action alone.

How can he do it? The most effective way of tackling carbon pollution is to enlist market forces on a grand scale by putting a price or a direct cap on carbon. Congress would set limits on overall emissions and then get out of the way, letting businesses and entrepreneurs figure out the best and cheapest way of avoiding emissions. California can help set the right example with its comprehensive cap-and-trade system — the same approach that has done wonders for decreasing acid rain.

But until that long-delayed moment when Congress becomes ready to follow the president’s lead, relying on existing law will have to do.

Gernot Wagner, author of But Will the Planet Notice?: How Smart Economics Can Save the World, is an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Next: Edward P. Joseph on why Obama should make a trade deal with Europe.


Previous: Gernot Wagner on why Obama should cut power plant pollution.

Edward P. Joseph: Make a Trade Deal with Europe

Almost half a year after Europe’s central banker promised to do “whatever it takes” to keep the eurozone together, the continent is still in shambles. In November, the 17-member monetary union officially fell back into recession, again raising anxiety that Europe’s most indebted countries could succumb to a debt load that, even after successive “haircuts,” still exceeds 100 percent of GDP in Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal. By the end of October, one out of every four Spanish workers was unemployed. Even Europe’s economic powerhouses have been affected by the carnage: Germany’s growth rate has fallen to an anemic 0.2 percent, while economic activity in the Netherlands contracted 1.1 percent in the third quarter of 2012. It’s no longer an exaggeration to say that Europe’s unresolved economic crisis is a multifaceted mess that presents the single largest threat to U.S. national security not named Iran, Pakistan, or al Qaeda.

So what can President Obama do for a divided continent that lacks the political maturity and institutional cohesion necessary to deal with its own crisis? The answer is to strike a comprehensive free trade deal with the European Union.

The potential is huge: Europe and the United States together make up the world’s largest and wealthiest market, with nearly 50 percent of the world’s GDP. Together, Europe and the United States account for more than 30 percent of world trade, and as importantly, they are each the other’s most important trading partner by far. In 2011, Europe purchased three times more U.S. goods than did China, while Europe sold more than twice as many products to the United States as to China. A free trade agreement would turbocharge that relationship, helping to bring Europe out of its current malaise. What’s more, a breakthrough on trade with Europe would act as a worldwide benchmark, getting Asian and other economies to adopt stronger regulatory and environmental standards. And while some sticky issues still stand in the way of a deal, the circumstances are as favorable as they ever have been.

Not long after the U.S. election, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged “possible negotiations with the European Union for a comprehensive agreement” to increase transatlantic trade — an encouraging sign. But concluding a pact with Asian economies was Washington’s top trade priority in Obama’s first term. Now is the time to focus on the far more pressing, and promising, European trade arena. Unlike with Asia, a trade deal with Europe would be a rare win-win that wouldn’t antagonize the Democratic Party base. Europe already has high labor rights and environmental standards, removing the standard liberal objections to trade deals. Also, with its high labor costs, Europe is unlikely to take many American jobs under a free trade regime, providing more reassurance to U.S. labor unions. Meanwhile, with remaining tariffs eliminated and regulations harmonized, U.S. products and especially services would gain wider market penetration in Europe, while American consumers and businesses would benefit from lowers costs on European exports.

Trade deals can take years to negotiate, let alone gain congressional approval. Obama, however, wouldn’t even need a finally concluded pact ready to present to Congress to reap some of the benefits of a U.S.-EU deal. Even a coordinated, top-level announcement from the two sides expressing a shared commitment to reaching a comprehensive trade agreement this year would soothe world markets. Europe remains trapped in a vicious circle of austerity in the south, mistrust and dogmatism in the north, and institutional dysfunction at the core that makes Washington gridlock look like a minor traffic jam in comparison. Austerity remains the gospel in Europe, condemning the continent to low growth rates and skeptical financial markets, while borrowing rates remain stubbornly high. The prospect of a comprehensive transatlantic agreement is one of the few measures that could slice through the Gordian knot, stimulating much-needed growth without financial stimulus.

In June, U.S. and European negotiators issued an interim report reflecting progress in talks and identifying issues that stand in the way of an agreement, including liberalizing transatlantic e-commerce and digital services while protecting data. But even where negotiators have overcome obstacles, such as Europe’s aversion to hormone-treated beef, political leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel may yet prove reluctant to make concessions that could anger and mobilize Greens and the left in an election year.

Obama can help overcome resistance in two ways: first, by reassuring European leaders that reaching an accord is a priority equal to the administration’s efforts in Asia; and second, by capitalizing on the president’s enormous personal popularity to make the case directly to European parliamentarians and voters. Given what’s at stake if Europe falters and the benefits that both sides stand to make, it’s a no-brainer.

Edward P. Joseph is visiting fellow at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations.

Next: Micah L. Sifry on why Obama should fix American democracy.

Gerard Cerles/AFP/Getty Images

Previous: Edward P. Joseph on why Obama should make a trade deal with Europe.

Micah L. Sifry: Fix American Democracy

It’s tempting to argue, in the wake of President Obama’s victory, powered by more than 4 million small donors, that in fact Big Money can’t buy elections. But this isn’t really true for democracy in America, of course. A tiny, unrepresentative sliver of the population provides the vast bulk of funding for election campaigns. Lobbyists outnumber members of Congress by at least 25 to 1. And despite fresh rhetoric about open government, much of what Washington does with taxpayer dollars is still veiled in obscurity, if not outright secrecy. Consequently, the whole national conversation about issues is tilted far from the concerns of ordinary Americans, with results that are similarly skewed. Ask Americans about the economy, for example, and polls show they want a raise in the minimum wage. But ask politicians, and they’re more focused on the concerns of investors, who want to keep capital gains tax rates low.

Obama has a unique opportunity to change this equation. Buoyed by a massive campaign organization that mobilized some 2.2 million volunteers and made more than 150 million voter contacts, the president could use his second term to push through fundamental changes in the political process aimed at ensuring that all Americans — not just the wealthy — can participate more fully and equally in the necessary work of self-government. He can be remembered as the president who revitalized American democracy.

And Obama could lead on these issues without waiting for Congress to act. By executive order, he could require that government contractors disclose their political expenditures, as he considered doing in 2011. He could make his political appointees disclose their contacts with lobbyists and their involvement in fundraising activities. To revive his moribund open-government agenda, he could require that federal agencies list all the data they collect, whether or not the data are being made public. Then he could mandate that anything already being made public be made available online, so it is more accessible to all, rather than just to insiders and the well-connected.

Obama could also follow up on his off-the-cuff remark during his victory-night speech and actually start fixing the country’s broken voting system. Voter registration ought to be automatic at age 18. Election Day ought to be moved to the weekend, to make it easier for working people to vote. Polling places ought to be held to uniform national standards, with federal funding made available to help localities with the costs.

Ideally, Obama would also push hard for change on Capitol Hill. At the moment, he has the most potent political organization in the United States. While his campaign staffers have mostly left Chicago, the hardware and software for mass mobilization remain intact. Obama could frame the next congressional cycle around fixing Washington and use this potent force either to reward incumbents who support real change or to back challengers in the 2014 midterm elections.

Fortunately, much of the legwork has already been done. The Fair Elections Now Act, which has 118 co-sponsors in Congress, would institute a constitutionally sound system of voluntary public financing for congressional candidates. The DISCLOSE Act would ensure that donations above $10,000 contributed by corporations and labor unions to influence elections get reported. The Lobbyist Disclosure Enhancement Act would require lobbyists to disclose which officials or members of Congress they are lobbying, speed up disclosure, and close loopholes that allow some of Washington’s most powerful players to avoid disclosure. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act would establish uniform public reporting of government spending by agencies and recipients, enabling much better tracking of where tax dollars actually go.

All this would hit Washington like an earthquake, but nothing less is needed — that is, if we are going to have a democracy in which ordinary Americans count for more than a throwaway line in all those fundraising emails.

Micah L. Sifry is editorial director of Personal Democracy Media and senior advisor to the Sunlight Foundation.

Next: Jody Williams on why Obama should stop using land mines and cluster munitions.

Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post

Uri Friedman is a former deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @UriLF

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