s you think about how to regain public support for your administration, Mr. President, one political imperative looms above all others: winning back the independents who voted for you in 2008 but abandoned the Democratic Party in 2010.
Independents are a motley political crew. Most habitually vote for one party or the other. But as many as a third of those who self-identify as independent really are nonaligned. How you can reach these true swing voters is a subject of endless debate in progressive circles. Centrists argue that you should move to the center. Liberals insist that by standing firm for progressive principles, the center will move to you. Persuading independents, however, is less a matter of political positioning than effective governing.
What these voters are looking for can be summed up succinctly: a more prosperous economy, a more disciplined government, and a more responsive political system that yields results, not partisan deadlock. These voters are upset not because they think you’ve gone socialist, but because they feel you haven’t delivered on these three fronts.
Having captained the Democratic squad in the first half of your current term of office, you now have a chance to rise above your party in the second. Instead of articulating broad policy aspirations, leaving it to Congress to fill in the blanks, you can spell out the quintessential Obama agenda—your vision for reviving economic confidence, especially across America’s stricken industrial heartland, and for fixing a broken political system. And, in a departure from the coolly rational, serial pragmatism that has marked your presidency up to now, you can articulate a larger narrative that illuminates the principles you will fight for over the next two years.
In your State of the Union address, you should move the economic debate beyond bailouts and stimulus to a long-range plan for rebuilding America’s productive capacities and competitive prowess. The public, by surprisingly large margins, believes that the U.S. economy is being irreversibly eclipsed by China and other emerging powers. You could start reversing this declinist psychology with an ambitious program of internal nation building.
Getting Congress to establish a well-funded National Infrastructure Bank—an idea you have endorsed but not pushed hard enough for—would be a good place to start. With U.S. firms sitting on almost $2 trillion in retained earnings, and millions of workers looking for jobs, modernizing the nation’s transport and other infrastructure is the best way to get America back to work. An infrastructure bank would attract much-needed private financing for new public-private projects that are crucial to America’s competitiveness: a high-speed rail network; a modern air traffic control system; carbon-free nuclear power plants; smart electricity grids; and more. And it would select projects based on their economic returns, not political clout.
You should also propose big changes in tax and regulatory policies to help spur innovation and growth. A proper tax overhaul would drastically reduce tax expenditures—even popular ones like the home-mortgage deduction and health care exclusion—and use the proceeds to lower taxes on businesses and entrepreneurs. And be leery of calls from liberal “populists” to wield the federal government’s regulatory powers more aggressively. On the contrary, your administration should subject each new proposed rule to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. Absent some dire threat to public health or safety, it makes little sense for Washington to impose new regulations on sectors, like telecommunications, that are innovating rapidly and adding jobs at a robust clip. As economist Michael Mandel has argued, regulatory policy is an underappreciated tool for spurring economic growth, and it should be as sensitive to the business cycle as fiscal and monetary policy.
By emphasizing America’s comparative advantage in global competition—namely, an entrepreneurial climate, modern infrastructure, forward-leaning energy policies, and a highly skilled workforce—you can offer working- and middle-class families a coherent strategy for America’s economic revival. This also would go a long way toward rebutting right-wing myths that you are a European-style proponent of big government.
Putting the federal government on a fiscally sustainable course also is integral to America’s economic comeback. One of your greatest challenges therefore is to go beyond aspirational rhetoric and produce a credible plan for whittling down America’s massive public debts as the economy recovers.
Since 2000, more than $8 trillion has been added to the national debt, mostly by your predecessor. The debt level is now on track to reach 90 percent of GDP by the end of the decade. A failure to close this yawning fiscal gap would make credit markets deeply apprehensive, divert capital from productive investment to interest payments once the economy has returned to capacity, intensify the growing budget squeeze on domestic, discretionary programs, and cede more of our economic sovereignty to China and other foreign creditors.
The case for fiscal discipline, moreover, is as much a matter of ethics as economics. To many voters, especially swing voters, Washington’s borrow-and-spend habits are emblematic of an insular political class that doles out taxpayer dollars to special interests to entrench itself in power. (It’s instructive that the first act of the Tea Party–infused Republicans was to force their congressional leaders to swallow a ban on earmarks, which neatly symbolize this self-dealing syndrome even if they aren’t really what’s driving federal spending.)
Having added hugely to the deficits to stave off an economic collapse, you must now demonstrate that you can discipline government spending. The co-chairs of your Fiscal Commission have issued an aggressive deficit reduction plan that defines the outer bounds of political possibility. It is now up to you to face down fiscal deniers in both parties—conservatives who won’t acknowledge the need for more revenue and liberals who oppose reducing future benefits for Medicare and Social Security.
By challenging Washington’s bipartisan conspiracy to bankrupt America, you can offer independent voters a powerful reminder of the candidate who first attracted them: a political outsider come to change the way Washington works, not just change the party in charge of government.
Which leads us, finally, to the question of how to deal with a radicalized Republican Party. To your enormous credit, you have reached out doggedly to congressional Republicans over the last two years, only to have your hand rudely swatted away. But it’s still the best approach. Keep probing for areas of possible compromise with House and Senate Republicans. Either some Republicans will summon the courage to cooperate, or they will reveal themselves as the obstructionists they are. If House Republicans indulge in a futile fight to revoke Obamacare or reject any and all tax increases to cut America’s swollen debt, then swing voters will see for themselves who in Washington really is sincere about solving their problems.
For progressives, the best news from the midterm debacle is that independents, for all their disappointment with your first two years, still harbor affection for you and high hopes for your presidency. By championing unmistakably national purposes rather than narrowly partisan goals, you can even now recapture the mantle of genuine change—and win back the broad center of the U.S. electorate.
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