The disappointment of Barack Obama's supporters is palpable. He has gone from being a vessel for their greatest hopes into 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 any platform plank but with the promise of longed-for fundamental change. What's more, the change seemed guaranteed. 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. And then we waited to see when the changes would come. But sadly, it thus far seems 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. Values have been murky. Cash and special interests have remained king. And as for that bright shining future, we're still waiting.
Not only are we doing things the same old way, but the same old way doesn't seem to be working for the country as well as it once did.
In the past week I have had the chance to speak with three dyed-in-the-wool Democratic donors. One said to me, "The last set of jobless numbers was a game-changer." Another, a former senior government official, spent half an hour discussing with me why Republican candidate Mitt Romney might do a better job. His thesis? That Obama is an ineffective manager and a weak leader, so while Romney is a deeply flawed candidate, he might do better. Certainly, this former official believed, he would be a better manager.
Obama's "the private sector is doing fine" line on Friday, June 8, did not help. It was not, as some have suggested, a gaffe. It was a calculated misrepresentation. But it gave the impression that he was out of touch -- which in political terms is even worse than being a self-serving dissembler. It raised the specter that Obama might defy conventional wisdom and resemble not Jimmy Carter but rather George H.W. Bush as a once-popular successful manager of foreign policy who was seen as unable to help the average citizen deal with his or her problems. But it hardly matters. Carter, Bush 41 -- they were both one-term presidents.
What's more, the growing political concern over administration leaks on national security issues -- and newly launched Justice Department investigation into said leaks -- seems likely to grow into another problem for the president. Some of the details in several recent New York Times articles and books could only have come from senior officials on Obama's national security team (whether in the White House or elsewhere in the government). This made the president's huffy indignation over accusations associated with the leaks seem ridiculous. And remember, in Washington, it's never the crime that gets you; it's always the coverup. So that space, too, bears watching over the months before the election.
As does the deepening eurocrisis. It can 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 or problems associated with his team.
That said, none of the Democratic stalwarts with whom I spoke was ready to give up. And the prospects of Romney led by the nose by the Republican right on the Hill, and of that choosing Supreme Court justices, seemed chilling to this group. These Democrats still want to support Obama -- while hoping for a new justification to do so.
The refrain from each of them was the same: The president needs to step it up in the next few months and articulate a clear vision for the future of the U.S. economy.
Perplexingly, Obama has yet to do that.
Indeed, 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 some of the really substantial resources that exist within the administration. Strange that we are in the midst of an economic crisis and this White House still can't muster among its own cabinet a team of visible surrogates who are out on the hustings, delivering a coordinated message. Can you imagine George W. Bush's Treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, or Clinton Treasury chief Bob Rubin being as invisible as Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is in the midst of such a crisis moment?
If there's a second term, this must be addressed. But for now, what the president needs to do is recognize that he needs policy ideas that are as bold in 2012 as the prospect of the first African-American president was in 2008. He needs to fill the creativity void that has sucked the enthusiasm from many of his core supporters.
It's not impossible. Even at this late date, he can sketch out a vision of American renewal that is plausible and built around a few big ideas to restore real enthusiasm among his supporters.
The basic argument is simple: America is on the verge of a new period of great growth built around three once-in-a-lifetime realities: a new energy paradigm fueled by the recent boom in U.S. oil and natural gas production, an exceptional head start in being able to lead the world in the intellectual capital that will drive the industrial revolution 3.0, and a great opportunity to use the low price of dollars to invest in a new American infrastructure. Add to this some courage to set America's fiscal priorities straight, including distinguishing between investment and spending, focusing on growth now and fiscal tightening later, fixing the broken U.S. tax code, and cutting spending where it must be cut. Finally, build it all upon a commitment to restoring the American Dream, focusing on reducing inequality, enhancing social mobility, and working hard for our children's interests rather than feathering the nest for ourselves.
Here are a few examples of how Obama could pull it off:
1. Taxes. 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 that the country will need should come from the promise of a value-added tax and perhaps a carbon tax to be introduced once the recovery has started more vigorously in, say, three to five years.
2. Trade. 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 of trade reform -- with the Doha round of negotiations to expand global trade dead and the Trans-Pacific Partnership resonating only with wonks -- it's time for a new big idea. How about a U.S.-EU Free Economic Zone? Together, they're the biggest market in the world. What's more, both need growth; the Europeans pay their workers well enough that usual labor arguments shouldn't adhere; and we could make it about regulatory coordination (on financial markets, say) as well as removing remaining trade obstacles (on agricultural trade, the Euros are going to have a hard time maintaining historically high subsidies, so now is the time to strike). And coordination and closer ties will help us more effectively pressure emerging markets to remove barriers and raise their standards.
3. Defense. The administration should own defense reform, not tiptoe around it. While the Republican Party seeks to demagogue fears about pending military cuts, ignoring the waste, redundancies, obsolete systems, and fat in the current budget, the White House has been timid about embracing the other side of the argument. That would entail noting how failing to rationalize the military's enormous budget after a decade of massive spending will itself weaken the country. But more importantly, there is a way to make the case that the country can make substantial cuts to spending while simultaneously strengthening its force -- provided it comes with a vision for what a 21st-century military looks like. 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. So Obama should talk about investing in new systems, not cutting old ones, and what kind of jobs that will create. And he should commit to preserving the jobs of those in the military. The president has helped create a new doctrine for conflict -- he should own it and expand upon it.
4. Jobs. Take the pillars described above -- energy, high-value-added manufacturing, and infrastructure -- and you can describe how the United States can fill the 30 million job openings it needs to between now and 2025. We need big ideas -- and real ones. But they're there. Education is a big part of this. Obama should get behind major immigration reform to let people who come and earn advanced degrees get green cards. Have one big memorable idea on education that sets the president apart. 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 starts attracting better people to teach our kids. Or use technology to advance a national curriculum -- standing up to teachers' unions on this would be a Sistah Souljah moment that the country would cheer.
5. Energy. The idea of real energy independence once seemed like a dream. It should now be a national goal. The United States is already an energy exporter. According to a recent Citibank report, by 2020 "the U.S. 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." And 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. Tom Friedman has been right about this "moon shot" for many years now, and with each month new discoveries suggest it is more rather than less achievable. Start with a commitment to framing in the next 12 months a whole-of-the-economy, whole-of-government energy policy -- just the kind of strategy the United States has never had until now.
Will this cure what ails the Obama campaign? Not instantly. But here's the most important point: 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 Romney but to many of the sometimes disappointing, business-as-usual, Obama results of the past three and a half years.