Students and politicians discuss state of the union

As the celebratory hype surrounding the president’s second inauguration gradually quieted down, a panel of experts — two former state legislators and two politically active students — gathered Wednesday in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Forum to speculate how President Barack Obama will address major policy issues in his final term.

Moderated by Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, and Rachel Bracker, managing editor of the Daily Trojan, the panel considered some of the key issues that proved decisive in the November election.

USC College Republicans member Greg Sefain and USC College Democrats member Ethan “E.J.” Levin provided insights from a student perspective. Former California State Senator Tony Strickland and former California State Assemblyman Anthony Portantino pulled from their own experiences in politics when addressing the president’s second term.

Talk of job creation took a back seat as gun control and environmental issues  dominated the conversation, with all panelists noting that the president might be more willing to assume progressive positions on these hot-button issues now that he no longer faces reelection.

“I think that Obama’s goal is to transform the powers of the presidency,” Strickland said. “Many of the issues that will be central to this administration are issues that Obama rarely even touched on in his first term.”

Sefain noted how the immediacy and relevance of gun control legislation will likely take a prime spot on the presidential to-do list, a rather unexpected priority considering how little attention the issue received in previous elections.

“Obama must be mindful of his game plan,” Sefain said. “He will likely capitalize early on the gun argument because he knows that right now it is in the minds of all Americans.”

Levin remained optimistic that the beginning of a second term might encourage bipartisan negotiations.

“I think a lot of Democrats wanted to see more from Obama in his first term,” Levin said. “If he can harness discontent for current gun laws, he may be able to get Congress on the side of progressive legislation.”

Strickland did not seem as confident in the president’s ability to overcome the hyper-partisan divide that plagues Washington. Rather, he anticipates that the president will exercise strong executive powers in his second term, bypassing Congress entirely when it comes to some of the most contentious issues.

“I think Obama knows that certain agenda items are not going to get through Congress,” Strickland said. “He will probably resort to executive orders in tackling the gun problem. With regards to climate change, I think he will expand the powers of the EPA.”

Strickland’s thoughts were echoed by Portantino, who agreed that the president would likely run into opposition on certain contested issues.

“I’m not sure that Obama will be able to find common ground for issues like gun control and gay rights,” Portantino said.

Panelists, however, also remained wary of the political implications of executive action on some of the nation’s most divisive topics. Some panelists believed that, though the president no longer faces the pressures of re-election, policies that are perceived as too liberal might make for an uphill battle for Democratic presidential contenders in 2016 and might lead to a sweeping Republican victory in the midterm, as was largely the case in 2010.

“In two years, we will face another election, and if the president burns too many bridges in an effort to implement his policies, he could see a major defeat for his party in Congress,” Sefain said.

The panelists also addressed the future of the Republican Party in national politics. Though many commentators have written off 2012 as the beginning of the end for the GOP, panelists remained confident that the party could see a rebound depending on the president’s performance over the next four years.

“Pendulums swing,” Strickland said. “And they always swing.”

The topics discussed in the panel discussion might foreshadow what Obama discuss in his State of the Union Address. The president will deliver this address before Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 12. A viewing of the speech will be held in the lobby of the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, followed by a panel discussion.