Obama needs big ideas. Here's five:
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The disappointment of Barack Obama's supporters is palpable. He has gone from being a vessel for their greatest hopes to being a confirmation of their deepest fears about the American political system.
The excitement he generated was associated not with his gift for oratory or his platform but with his promise of fundamental change. What's more, anyone could see he would not be like other presidents. Merely electing him would undo age-old injustices.
So his election was a transcendent moment. Then we waited to see when the changes would come. Sadly, it so far seems Mr. Obama's singular act of creativity was in winning election. He was what was new. He was the change.
Since then, he has gone from defying Washington convention to embodying it. His rhetoric about a new way of doing business, higher standards, a creative vision for the future has proved to be just that: words. Business has been as usual. Cash and special interests have remained king. And not only are we doing things the same old way, but the same old way doesn't seem to be working as well as it once did.
Over the past couple of weeks, I've talked with dyed-in-the-wool Democratic donors. One told me, "The last set of jobless numbers was a game-changer." Another spent half an hour discussing how Mitt Romney might do a better job. His thesis? That Mr. Obama is an ineffective manager and a weak leader, so while Mr. Romney is a deeply flawed candidate, he might do better.
Mr. Obama's "the private sector is doing fine" line on June 8 didn't help. It gave the impression he was out of touch.
The growing political concern over administration leaks on national security issues seems likely to grow into another problem for the president.
Then there's the deepening eurocrisis. It could undercut U.S. economic growth and global market confidence in ways that outstrip any personal issues people may or may not have with the president.
One of the striking problems associated with the Obama administration is that its disciplined, process-driven "team of rivals" approach to national security stands in stark contrast with a spluttering, low-grade, uncoordinated approach to economic policymaking that has left most of the economic Cabinet on the sidelines, reserved big decisions for a small group of pols in the White House and ignored substantial in-house resources. Strange that we are in the midst of an economic crisis and this White House still can't muster a team of visible surrogates who are out on the hustings and delivering a coordinated message.
This must be addressed. But what the president needs most are policy ideas that are as bold in 2012 as the prospect of the first African-American president was in 2008. Even at this late date, he still can sketch out a plausible vision of American renewal built around a few big ideas.
The basic argument is simple: America is on the verge of a new period of growth thanks to a new energy paradigm -- fueled by the boom in U.S. oil and natural gas production -- an exceptional head start in intellectual capital that will drive Industrial Revolution 3.0 and a great opportunity to use low-priced dollars to invest in new American infrastructure.
The basic goal should be to restore the American Dream, focusing on reduced inequality, enhanced social mobility and a better future for our children. Here are examples of ideas that could help Mr. Obama:
The president should steal the jump on the Republicans and propose a massive simplification of the tax code. Loopholes should be eliminated. Filing should be made easier. And tax rates for the wealthy should go back up to reasonable rates -- say the historically low levels of Bill Clinton's administration. New revenue for investment in infrastructure and education could come from a value-added tax (popular with Republicans) and perhaps a carbon tax to be introduced once the recovery has started more vigorously in, say, three to five years.
Mr. Obama set audacious goals for doubling American exports and is on track to reach them. He should take more credit for this. As for the future, with global trade negotiations dead, how about a U.S.-EU Free Trade Zone? This would stimulate growth on both sides of the Atlantic. The Europeans pay their workers well enough that the usual labor arguments shouldn't adhere, and we could make it about regulatory coordination (of financial markets, say) as well as removing remaining trade obstacles (especially on agriculture). Coordination and closer ties would help us more effectively pressure emerging markets to remove barriers and raise their standards.
The administration should own defense reform, not tiptoe around it. While the Republican Party seeks to demagogue fears about pending military cuts, ignoring waste, redundancies and obsolete systems, the White House has been timid about embracing the other side of the argument. But failing to rationalize the military's enormous budget after a decade of massive spending will itself weaken the country.
Mr. Obama should explain how spending can be substantially cut while our forces can be substantially strengthened if we envision a 21st-century military. A revolution is afoot -- from unmanned aircraft to ever-more-precise munitions to cyberweapons to a greater focus on rapid-deployment, special-ops teams -- at a time when most branches of the U.S. military are built around 20th-century concepts and systems. Mr. Obama should talk about investing in new systems and the jobs this would create.
Education is a big part of this. Mr. Obama should get behind major immigration reform to let people who come and earn advanced degrees get green cards. He should offer a big, memorable idea. How about saying teachers don't pay taxes on their first $100,000 of income? Immediately double their salaries. The cost is manageable and America would attract smarter people to teach our kids.
Real energy independence once seemed like a dream. It should now be a national goal. The United States already is an energy exporter. According to a recent Citibank report, by 2020 "the United States should see combined domestic supply and Canadian imports of oil reach over 20 million barrels per day, while U.S. oil demand falls 2 million to below 17 million barrels per day, leaving a 3 million barrel per day surplus available for export."
With new gas discoveries, alternative energy technologies, offshore resources and the promise of huge Canadian reserves, we ought to be able to say that North America can be energy independent by 2030. Certainly, we can set the goal of no longer depending on a drop of oil from the volatile, dangerous Middle East.
Will all this cure what ails the Obama campaign? No. But the Obama team needs to accept that its legitimate distaste for the Republican theme of economic Darwinism (campaign slogan: Let's make Americans work harder to make the 1 percent even richer) is not enough around which to build a campaign. The White House has to offer a real alternative, not just to Mitt Romney but to many of the often disappointing, business-as-usual Obama results of the past three and a half years.
First Published June 24, 2012 12:00 am