President Obama needs to launch a project or two that he can start, develop, and complete successfully -- or, at the very least, projects on which he can make major significant progress. He lost credibility and much of the high regard in which he was held by many Americans (and people overseas) by making very inspiring speeches that were not followed up by much of anything. He allowed US adversaries to run roughshod over his red lines. And, most recently, he embraced the trick Dick Morris taught President Clinton, namely to launch one mini-project after another, thereby seeming to do a lot without either expending much monies (over which he has little control) or upsetting vested interests with an election year in sight.
President Reagan had one shining "city on a hill" that he was fond of pointing to. President Obama has half a dozen. These include a world without nuclear weapons; domestic politics in which Republicans and Democrats cooperate while singing "Kumbaya"; a Congress that enacts gun control measures, climate change, and full-blown immigration reform -- all in one year; and, most recently, restoring social mobility in America and building the middle class from the middle (whatever that means). All these mountains of rhetoric produce molehills so small that they are invisible to the naked eye.
The president hence turned to construct some more molehills, trying to make them seem momentous. He raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for all workers of new federal contractors. Estimates vary regarding how many people may be affected, ranging between 200,000 (which sounds like a great number unless you compare it to the 3.6 million workers who now work at or below the minimum wage) and -- zero. He just announced that he will start two innovation centers in Chicago and Detroit, with the hope that others will follow, for a total budget of forty million a year Obama's recent initiative to increase opportunity for young African American men has the same trivial budget.
I have two projects the president might consider which he can advance without congressional approval or Republican cooperation -- projects that are significant, and, hence, would go a long way to restoring his credibility and respect. Surely there are others; take the following merely as examples of what a doable project with "real" rather than rhetorical outcomes might look like. President Obama should announce that he is personally taking command of a project that seeks, for the first time, to fully dismantle a major weapons system of mass destruction. His engagement is needed because the Syrians are dragging their feet: they delivered only a small fraction (less than 15 percent) of their chemical arms to Italy, whose port has been designated as that from which these arms will be taken over by the West. The Syrians also announced that they would cease to dismantle the facilities that make these arms -- in violation of their promise--and now say they are merely going to put them under lock and key. And they claim that transportation of the weapons is endangered by the rebels. All these hurdles deserve close attention. The president could order the delivery to the Syrians of more armed carriers to transport the weapons which would be collected with the last shipment. He could warn the rebels that they would be subject to American drone attacks if they went near the chemical weapons and admonish Syria that if it did not adhere to its commitment -- he will fire a missile or two at Assad's headquarters. If this upsets the Russians, given their recent conduct, this should be considered a bonus. The president will demand daily briefings on progress and personally order dealing with all the other hurdles that will arise, until -- within a few months! -- the project, now endangered, will be complete. Then he would make a much-deserved victory lap, visiting the courageous inspectors of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)
An important mission accomplished.
On the domestic front, Obama could lead a drive to ensure that all and only eligible voters will have an effective opportunity to vote in the next (and future) elections. There are many local drives and some nationwide ones advanced by various civic bodies designed to accomplish this end. However, to ensure that all those who have a right to vote will be able to exercise this right requires a national drive. Such a drive would not merely call for removal of undue obstacles and help people get the needed documents, but also ensure that polling places stay open if the lines are long, that votes take place on weekends, and that early voting and voting by mail are allowed. (Norman Ornstein calls for a new federal Voting Rights Acts that would encompass many of these requirements). This is a project about which young Americans, especially students who are often denied the right to vote because they are out of state (and tend to vote for Democrats), could get excited about. It is a project whose message is clear and straightforward -- and one on which people who are rather conservative might still readily support, especially as it would include a commitment to ensure that only eligible voters are allowed to vote (even though, in reality, fraud is hardly a problem). In all these respects, the drive to ensure that one and all have an effective right to vote differs from the call to mobilize the Obama brigades to support the Affordable Care Act, which is complicated, controversial, and progressive.
Finally, although Obama will be unable to "complete" this project, as there will be some voters who still will be denied access, this project has a clear metric of success. One can readily envision a big screen on the South Lawn of the White House that is adapted daily and tells us the number of eligible voters who have the required documents, the number of states that enacted various regulations that facilitate voting (e.g. weekend voting and by mail), and number of states who extended the right to vote to those who committed crimes but completed their probation and did not reoffend. The screen will not read 100 percent, however it will provide a measure of progress of a significant project that will advance political justice and have real consequences, including allowing many of those who benefit from Obama care to vote to protect it, and just may determine which party will control the Senate after 2014.
I am sure other "real" projects can be envisioned. However, unless the president can advance some projects that involve more than inspiring us, projects that significantly advance our condition -- Obama may well go down in history as a president who never made the transition from campaigning (which can thrive on speech making and envisioning) to governing (which calls for making changes that truly matter).
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University.