What an opportunity agenda should mean for President Obama

In his State of the Union address, President Obama declared a new focus on expanding opportunity for all Americans.  “Opportunity is who we are,” the President said, “and the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.”  Obama made clear that if Congress fails to move on this goal, he will take executive action. 

Obama’s planned executive order to raise the minimum wage for workers under federal contracts is an important step, but much more is needed. As the president tests Congress’s resolve on legislative priorities like a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, he should issue an order requiring that agencies administer federal appropriations—programs, contracts, grants and loans—so as to maximize job creation, foster economic mobility, and ensure equal opportunity.  He should operationalize that commitment by requiring Opportunity Impact Statements as a precursor to any major spending.

Building on budget analyses and other measures that are already part of most federally funded activities, Opportunity Impact Statements would assess, for example, whether a proposed highway project would connect low-income communities to good jobs and schools, or serve only the most affluent communities. It would detail where and how job opportunities for women as well as men would flow from the project, and who would shoulder any environmental or health burdens.  It would ensure, ultimately, that federal tax dollars expand, rather than contract, opportunity for all.  And it would protect equal opportunity, irrespective of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability. 

There is ample precedent for using executive action to expand opportunity and protect basic rights.  In 1941, for example, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 to prohibit racial discrimination in the national defense industry. It was the first federal action since Reconstruction to prohibit discrimination in employment in the United States.  In 1948 President Truman signed Executive Order 9980, ordering the desegregation of the federal work force, and Executive Order 9981, ordering the desegregation of the armed services.  President Kennedy followed this example in 1961, issuing Executive Order 10925, which created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and required proactive efforts by federally funded projects to ensure freedom from racial bias.

Throughout this period, civil rights legislation was proposed by the President and members of Congress, debated, and then killed by filibustering segregationist Southern Democrats.  In that period of gridlock and obstruction, the civil rights executive orders had huge impact, both practical and symbolic.  President Clinton invoked those lessons in 1998, signing executive order, 13087, prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal civilian workforce.

Today, after years of Congressional inaction on job creation and rising inequality, President Obama is on solid ground—both constitutionally and politically—in using executive power to protect and expand opportunity.  If Congress remains recalcitrant, Obama should follow Opportunity Impact Statements and federal wage increases with a ban on sexual orientation discrimination throughout the federal workforce, an end to reckless and excessive deportations, and—at a time when extreme weather events are becoming the norm—the incorporation of equal opportunity and human rights protections into disaster recovery. 

Obama must accompany each executive action with a cogent explanation to the American people about why these unilateral efforts are necessary, constitutional, and in the country’s best interest.  His State of the Union rationale—restoring the promise of opportunity that defines us as a nation—is a pretty good start.

Jenkins is executive director of The Opportunity Agenda, a public interest organization with the mission of building the national will to expand opportunity in America. @oppagenda

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