Skip to main content area Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to search Skip to section navigation

The Obama Win: Law, Politics and Policy after the Election

December 19, 2008

“Our economy is poised at a ski slope: keep your knees bent and mind your center of gravity,” law Professor Charles Mooney warned at a panel at Penn Law on Nov. 25.

Unsurprisingly the precarious situation created by the current economic turmoil was foremost in the comments made by a panel on President-Elect Obama’s victory. The scholars expected that Obama would re-frame some social issues — among them healthcare and energy — as economic ones. They also forecast that although some new programs will be created to address America’s healthcare crises and other domestic problems, these proposals may not be funded or implemented until the economy improves.

In tackling the economic problem, Mooney, associate dean for academic affairs and the Charles A. Heimbold Jr. Professor of Law, said Obama should address some of the core problems that caused the economic crisis in the first place. For example, Obama should enact policies to enhance the transparency of financial markets, especially as related to credit default swaps, as soon as possible. Mooney said that other problems like bad investments and excess leverage would be tricky to regulate, however. He said we may see some relief for homeowners, and he suggested the creation of a type of bankruptcy that focuses on housing, which would allow people to default on their house payments but keep their other assets.

Housing was also on the mind of Wendell Pritchett, professor of law and a former urban policy advisor to the president-elect. Pritchett said that urban policies can stimulate the economy, and said Obama should exploit the advantages of cities – including density, public transportation, and technological innovations. The government might consider offering incentives to urban institutions, like Penn, which would further improve the urban environments surrounding them he suggested. These policies could help our domestic economic problems.� Pritchett also looked forward to the creation of a White House “Office of Urban Affairs” that will help coordinate the efforts of all federal agencies that deal with our cities.

Another senior advisor to the Obama campaign, Tobias Wolff, professor of law, said human rights issues — specifically those involving gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people — cannot and should not be put on the back burner because of the economic situation. “Barak Obama is the man you think he is on issues of equality,” said Wolff, citing responses candidate Obama made to questions raised by the Human Rights Campaign. Obama is committed to the core values of equal rights and equal opportunities and that he will make these issues a priority. Wolff argues that it makes economic sense as well: “Safeguarding equality is good for business.”

Human rights should be a top priority for Obama agreed Seth Kreimer, the Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor of Law, a widely-respected scholar of civil liberties. Kreimer is pleased that the Obama presidency offers an important contrast with the Bush administration, which “blew through laws they didn’t like with flimsy legal arguments and did so in secret.” He’s pleased Obama seeks to regain “America’s moral stature in the world.”

Obama received praise not only for the policy stances he has taken, but the management skills he has already demonstrated. “The process of transition has been impressive,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication. “Obama has shown he can manage complexity compared to the ineptness of the Clinton transition. Obama is a lawyer who is working like an MBA.” Jamieson also praised Obama’s choice of Hilary Clinton to fill the post of Secretary of State for its political savvy.

Even with such a sharp politician in office, successful government and real change happen as a consequence of grass roots movements, Wolff reminded the audience. “Change requires sustained efforts by the people, community-based organizations and activists. It is up to us to push the legislative and executive branches to make change.”

Michael A. Fitts, Dean of Penn Law and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law moderated the panel. He invited the audience back in two years to see how the panelists have fared with their prognostications.