Much of the discussion since the election has focused on what's wrong with Republicans -- why they misread the data, how they'll regroup and how the long-range demographics are increasingly against them. But more pressing in the immediate term is the fact that a new presidential term starts on Jan. 21 with our country facing myriad urgent problems.
The president campaigned on the idea of letting him finish the job. And there's certainly a lot of job to finish. The president still has the opportunity to be a transformational one. Or, more accurately, he has the potential to have a transformational presidency -- because, as he has said again and again, bringing about the changes we need is going to require the active participation of all of us. It's a theme he laid out in his acceptance speech at this year's Democratic National Convention: "The path I'm offering ... will require common effort, shared responsibility. ... So you see, the election four years ago wasn't about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens -- you were the change. ... Only you have the power to move us forward."
One way to interpret these exhortations is as an echo of FDR's response to a group of labor leaders pushing for reform: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."
During the campaign, even constructive criticism of the administration was seen by some Democrats as simply strengthening the other side. Well, whether you agree with this line of reasoning or not -- and I certainly don't -- it is now moot. The election is over. Questioning Obama's policies and speaking up is not going to result in a Romney presidency. But it can help make the Obama presidency the transformational one it still has the potential to be. And there is absolutely no excuse for not doing as the president himself has demanded of us -- fulfilling our obligations as citizens and engaging in the "hard and necessary work of self-government." Here's just a partial list of issues:
-- FORECLOSURES: To deal with the housing crisis, in 2009, the president announced the Home Affordable Modification Program with much fanfare. Given a $50 billion budget, the program was to help up to 9 million people escape foreclosure by reducing their mortgage payments. As of June 2012, only 2.3 million had been helped, and only $4 billion of the $50 billion allocated has been spent. Meanwhile, around 20 percent of all U.S. mortgages are still underwater, with 13 million homeowners owing a total of $650 billion more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. As a result, millions of citizens are still facing foreclosure.
-- DRONES: On Nov. 7, as tens of millions of Americans were celebrating the election results, people in a Yemeni village were sifting through the rubble of what seems to have been another drone attack. Were any civilians killed along with militants? And were the supposed militants actually militants? We don't really know because the administration hardly acknowledges the existence of the drone program.
There is no shortage of objections being raised internationally. Of 20 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, 17 had majorities that disapproved of how the U.S. is using drones. And in September, Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani, when asked why Pakistan was turning anti-American, replied simply: "Drones."
-- PRISONS: "Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today -- perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850," writes The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik in a must-read piece. "In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system -- in prison, on probation, or on parole -- than were in slavery then." He concludes that "the scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life."
-- THE DRUG WAR: One of the main reasons why the U.S. has become a prison state is because of our disastrous, deadly and destructive war on drugs -- a war that didn't get a mention during the presidential campaign. Though even if it had, it likely wouldn't have been much of a debate. "The choice, for those of us who care about drug war issues, between Obama and Romney," wrote Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann, "is the choice between a disappointment and a disaster." Or both, since in the past 40 years this disastrous war has cost us around $1 trillion.
-- CLIMATE CHANGE: As HuffPost's Tom Zeller wrote, this was the first campaign since the 1980s in which neither candidate was asked about climate change in a debate or brought it up themselves. Of course, even if neither the candidates nor the media wanted to debate climate change, nature forced it into the public conversation in the form of superstorm Sandy. And unlike a debate question, this one couldn't be ignored or brushed off. But as the terrible human and financial cost of Sandy showed, it's not going to be enough to simply acknowledge climate change. That ship has also sailed. We need to do something about it.
-- VOTING: Like clockwork, every four years, the winning president says he's going to do something about improving the voting system. The president did mention voting problems in his victory speech, when he thanked all those who voted "whether you voted for the first time, or waited in line for a very long time." He then ad-libbed, "By the way, we have to fix that." And that's just the problem. Our entire voting system is a series of ad-libs. But to really fix it is going to require more than the quadrennial off-hand comment.
In his victory speech, the president said: "Whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you, and you've made me a better president." It's up to citizens not just to elect presidents but to make them better.