If elected president, Democrat Barack Obama promises closer ties with states and an infusion of federal dollars that states could use to expand health care, create “green” jobs and fix the country’s crumbling roads and bridges.
Only four years after he left the Illinois Senate for the U.S. Senate, Obama formally accepted the presidential nomination Aug. 28 at the Democratic National Convention. If he were to defeat Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain in November, Obama would be the first former state legislator in the White House since President Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976.
Obama focused largely on the problems of the middle class in his speech to 70,000 supporters at Invesco Field at Mile High stadium, promising a more active government role in seeking solutions.
“Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves – protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology,” he said.
State leaders here all week have expressed confidence that an Obama administration would lessen a string of tensions between Washington, D.C., and statehouses.
“All the governors need a partner in the White House, and Barack Obama has promised us that he will, in fact, be a partner with us,” said Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D).
Democrats say that the Obama campaign has actively enlisted the support and advice of governors — a strategy that insiders say John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, did not always embrace. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, lauded the Obama campaign for reaching out to the governors’ ranks.
“We’ve sat down intimately with Barack. We’ve had dinner. We’ve had discussions. We’ve been on phone calls. We’ve been talking about the problems we’re having state by state,” Manchin said. “That’s something very fresh.”
Even Obama’s background — eight years in the Illinois Statehouse compared to four in Congress — inspires optimism that he won’t lose sight of how national policies play out at the state level. That same hope was dashed, though, with President George W. Bush, who proved not to be a champion of states’ rights despite having served as governor of Texas.
Despite a huge federal budget deficit, state Democratic leaders are banking on an Obama administration opening the federal purse strings, for needs ranging from roads to energy to health care. “President Obama will have … our federal government actually invest in things,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said.
For example, Obama’s energy policy proposes to pump $150 billion over the next 10 years into developing clean-energy technology. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) said states would benefit from “a new energy economy” that would create an estimated 5 million jobs building solar and wind farms and clean-coal and geothermal plants.
As motorists nationwide suffer with nearly $4-a-gallon gasoline, the Denver convention was striking in that nearly every governor who spoke touched on some aspect of climate change, oil exploration, renewable fuels or fuel-emission standards.
“Barack Obama has a comprehensive domestic energy plan,” said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D). “I think that is the largest issue facing our country. We don’t have money to finance education or health care or infrastructure as long as we are sending a trillion dollars to those dictators (to buy foreign oil).”
Of immediate interest to states, Obama proposes to rush $50 billion in federal aid to states in an effort to halt the nation’s economic tailspin. At least 29 states are facing budget problems this year because of falling revenues triggered by the housing and mortgage crisis. Obama pledges a quick infusion of $25 billion to help states offset budget cuts, and another $25 billion for infrastructure. The cost of the rescue plan would pay for itself through increased economic activity, Obama has said.
State treasuries also would get a boost from Obama’s proposal for a second package of federal tax rebates to stimulate the economy, similar to Bush’s refund checks of up to $1,500 this year. Because many state tax systems are tied to the federal tax structure, states also would be impacted by Obama’s pledge to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans while preserving Bush’s tax cuts for people making less than $200,000 a year, and to add a new tax cut for middle-class Americans of $500 for individuals and $1,000 for married couples. He also would increase the capital gains tax.
A year after the deadly collapse of a Minnesota bridge inspired a re-examination of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, Obama says he also would help the economy by pumping $60 billion over 10 years into a national infrastructure fund. The money would go to repair highways, bridges, roads, ports, airports and rail systems in every state, creating an estimated 2 million jobs.
Maryland’s O’Malley said, “He won’t stand by when bridges collapse, while levees collapse.”
Obama’s ambitious proposal to provide universal access to health insurance, if enacted, would be the single biggest change for states, said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D). “It wouldn’t take the state out of providing dollars and services for health care, but it would lessen the burden that we have right now. Since I’ve been governor, the single biggest driver of our budget expansion has been increasing health-care costs.”
Obama also is expected to be more generous in giving states leeway — and money — to expand state programs for the uninsured, particularly for children. Ohio’s Strickland said his state has been waiting for a year for the green light from the Bush administration to begin covering 35,000 more children on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
State officials also are hopeful that the Illinois Democrat will scrap or overhaul what states call “unfunded mandates,” laws that Washington, D.C., orders them to carry out without enough federal dollars to do the job.
High on that list is the Real ID Act, the federal overhaul of driver’s licenses inspired by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that could cost states $4 billion, and No Child Left Behind, President Bush’s signature domestic policy that requires regular testing of students’ math and English skills and penalties to schools that don’t measure up.
A number of both Republican- and Democratic-led states have rebelled at the Real ID law for what they regard as federal intrusion and expensive changes in state-issued driver’s licenses. “It looks like Real ID is going down,” no matter who wins the White House, Rendell said. Obama in the past has called the law an unfunded mandate that he opposes.
State Sen. John Hastert (D), who represents Green River in southwest Wyoming, said, “I really believe if we get the nation going the right direction, which I believe Barack can do, then we won’t have as many unfunded mandates coming down to the states.”
Here are Obama’s proposals to address other issues and problems important to states:
Education: Addressing some of states’ concerns with the No Child Left Behind law, Obama promises to provide more money to cover states’ expenses and to move away from that law’s single test to track students’ progress. He also would boost federal education spending by about $18 billion, with much of the money going to pre-kindergarten programs, teacher training and mentoring programs.
Immigration: Obama would allow undocumented immigrants to pay a fine, learn English and “go to the back of the line” to become U.S. citizens. He also plans to add border agents and to sanction employers that hire undocumented workers. He also favors allowing states to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and giving grants to states to help promote citizenship.
Environment: Attacking global warming with tactics already being piloted by several states, Obama proposes to require a cut in carbon emissions by 2050 and to stipulate that 25 percent of the nation’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2025.
Energy: Obama opposes drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge but supports some exploration along the coasts. To encourage energy conservation over consumption, he proposes to channel federal money to states that begin allowing utility companies to earn higher profits for gains in energy efficiency. Obama wants to require governors and local officials to make energy conservation part of their planning efforts in order to receive federal transportation money; current law asks governors to “consider” conservation. He also proposes a competitive grant program to reward states and local governments that adopt codes for new buildings that make energy efficiency a priority, and federal matching funds for states that put up money for energy upgrades in older buildings.
Abortion: Obama supports abortion rights. While in the Illinois Senate, he voted against a bill to ban late-term abortions because, he said, it did not contain a clause to protect the life of the mother. Obama has strongly supported federal funding of contraception and teen-pregnancy prevention programs.
Same-sex marriage: Obama has said he personally believes that marriage is between a man and a woman but fully supports marriage equality for gay and lesbian Americans. He is opposed to state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, including a California ballot measure this year that seeks to stop gay weddings occurring there, and he supports state efforts to allow marriage equivalents such as civil unions and domestic partnerships.
Gun ownership: Though his campaign has not issued specifics on what kind of gun restrictions he approves of, Obama in the past has voiced support for a national ban on concealed weapons that would nullify individual state “concealed carry” laws. He also supports a permanent, nationwide ban on assault weapons.
Affirmative action: Obama supports affirmative action, a policy that promotes opportunities for racial minorities and women in hiring and education, though he has suggested that such programs should eventually focus on income, not race. Still, he opposes anti-affirmative ballot measures pending in Colorado and Nebraska and possibly Arizona.
Death penalty: Obama supports executing those who commit the “most heinous crimes.” He recently criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for ruling that a handful of states could not execute those convicted of raping — though not killing — children. At the same time, he has expressed concern that capital punishment is administered unfairly and does little to deter crime.
Crime: Obama has vowed to boost funding for state and local law enforcement initiatives, including restoring funds to a grant program that helps pay for state and local anti-drug efforts. All 50 governors and state attorneys general have unsuccessfully lobbied the Bush administration and Congress to restore a 67 percent cut to the program. Obama also has promised to do more to address racial profiling, violence against women and recidivism.
National Guard: He has vowed to address equipment shortages — a persistent problem for the state-run militias — and wants to expand National Guard and Reserve benefits. He supports making the Guard’s commander a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, giving him a more prominent seat at the table with other Pentagon leaders.
Pamela M. Prah is a veteran Washington reporter with some 20 years reporting experience, including stints at Kiplinger, The Bureau of National Affairs, McGraw-Hill and Congressional Quarterly. She has covered legislative, regulatory and political developments affecting states, business, organized labor and education. Her reporting has been cited in The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and C-SPAN. She has a master’s degree in government from Johns Hopkins University and a journalism degree from Ohio University. She also is an adjunct journalism professor at American University. Stephen Fehr joined Stateline.org in June, 2008 from The Washington Post, where he edited Virginia government and politics coverage. As a reporter at The Post, he covered transportation, development and District of Columbia finances. Before joining The Post, Fehr was a Washington correspondent and Kansas statehouse correspondent for the Kansas City Star. He graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Fehr is a native of Missouri who grew up in the Los Angeles area. Stateline.org staff writers John Gramlich, Christine Vestal, Daniel C.Vock and Pauline Vu, managing editor Barbara Rosewicz and intern Nathaniel Weixel contributed to this report. This article originally appeared in stateline.org and is published with their permission.