The waning days of summer are not a bad time to consider what an Obama second term might mean for the country. Olympic fever is almost past, the NFL season hasn't started, and the hoopla of the two national conventions is not yet a distraction. The race seems Obama's to lose -- it is an up or down verdict on his presidency. The public is not taken with the challenger. Even his own party leaders have a hard time warming to Mitt Romney. If he were to win, it's likely Romney would be hostage to his party's right wing elements.
"To envisage what Republicans would do if they win in November, the person to understand is not necessarily Romney, who has been a policy cipher all his public life," writes Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker. " The person to understand is Paul Ryan."
Rather than worrying about the depressing scenario of a Romney administration, I prefer to assume that Obama will win, probably a narrow victory (although one shouldn't underestimate Romney's tendency to put his foot his mouth at a key moment like a televised debate), with the House remaining in Republican hands, and the Senate still under narrow Democratic control. Absent a decisive Obama victory like that of four years ago, it is recipe for gridlock and endless partisan bickering unless Obama can step up his game as President.
What can we expect?
The signals from the Obama White House and political team are not encouraging. They are understandably cautious and focused on winning re-election as opposed to laying out a clear and inspiring agenda for a second term. New Yorker political reporter Ryan Lizza tackled the question, "What If Obama Wins?," in a long article in the New Yorker earlier this summer. While Obama has sharpened his populist rhetoric for the re-election campaign, Lizza heard familiar talk about bi-partisanship, quoting Obama on the campaign trail that he "believes that if we're successful in this election -- when we're successful in this election -- that the fever may break." Obama likes to repeat the phrase, "If we can break this fever," suggesting that he can somehow bring Republicans back into civil political dialogue.
A Romney loss to Obama in November is not going to change the nature of the Republican party, and Barack Obama is not going to charm them into better behavior.
Will Obama face up to this reality and become a stronger and more canny leader? We will get an indication in the lame duck session after the election, when decisions have to be made about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and forced major budget cuts. On Jan. 1, all the Bush tax cuts expire and the next day, absent a bi-partisan agreement on major deficit reduction, $100 billion must be cut from government spending, divided equally between defense and non-defense spending (not including Social Security and Medicare). Pundits are calling it the Fiscal Cliff.
The economics of the post-election situation are explained in a new book, Red Ink-Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget, by David Wessel, economics editor of the Wall Street Journal. This is the most useful book on government spending since the publication of the classic work, The Debt and Deficit by Robert Heilbroner and Peter Bernstein. In the service of economic literacy, I wish that a few members of the House and the Senate would read the entire book aloud on the floor of the respective chambers (but don't hold your breath). As Wessel makes clear, this is a fight about values and visions of society, not economics. Yes, there is economic reality such as the aging Baby Boomer population and the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the choices about whom to tax and how to spend are political.
Will Obama hang tough and play a game of budget chicken? Former New York Times editor, columnist Bill Keller advocates such a strategy (New York Times Review, Sunday, July 22, 2012), advising Obama to invite Congressional leaders to Camp David after the election, put a credible deficit plan on the table which combines taxes with spending cuts, and if no deal emerges, then do nothing and let loose the dogs of finance. "Does Obama have it in him?" asks Keller. "Well, here's his chance to show us what we can expect if he's re-elected: fruitful leadership, or another four years of gridlock."
How Obama handles the Fiscal Cliff will certainly be an indication of what to expect from him in his second term -- but we should not simply rely on Obama and his White House team to display fortitude and political will. They will need a broad political strategy and consistent and constant pressure from outside of Washington to prevail over Republican obstructionism. It needs to be more thoughtful than the random acts of protest by the Occupy movement which as a political force has proved to have little staying power (see my post, "Memo to Occupy", Huffington Post, October 12, 2011, for how it could have been otherwise). In a second term, Obama has the opportunity to alter the terms of public debate on the major issues of the day. Here's my proposed agenda for action:
Inequality and Economic Opportunity: In the past thirty years, economic inequality has increased in the U.S., and economic mobility, especially for minority and working class Americans has stagnated. This is not opinion, but fact, as a number of recent books make eminently clear: The Price of Inequality - How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future, by Nobel prize economist Joseph Stiglitz, The Great Divergence - America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It, by Timothy Noah, Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis by Texas economist James K. Galbraith, and So Rich, So Poor - Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America, by Peter Edelman, former RFK adviser and professor of law at Georgetown.
Obama is talking in the campaign about millionaires paying their fair share, and he does try to explain how we are all in this together -- that no one gets rich by acting alone. He can make good on the rhetoric by appointing a Presidential Commission on Inequality and Economic Opportunity, chaired by Stiglitz or Galbraith, which would hold public hearings, present the facts on income and wealth inequality as well as declining economic opportunity and offer policy remedies. The point of a Stiglitz or Galbraith Commission is to change the focus of public debate from the deficit to inequality and economic stagnation, and to propose measures to address the worsening situation. It might even be couched in terms of the fading American Dream. A creative White House communications office could shape this into an aggressive PR strategy. The material from hearings would provide substance for more candidates in 2014 with the fervor and commitment of Elizabeth Warren.
Immigration and Voter ID: The issues of illegal immigration, race, and the right to vote are conflated in the fight in key campaign states over Republican-sponsored Voter ID legislation whose purpose is to suppress voter turnout among minorities more likely to support Obama. The president's campaign and outside civil rights groups are contesting these measures, but the situation is fraught and will not be resolved by a narrow Obama victory. The president could display strategic leadership by proposing a measure which would have appeal on the right and left -- namely, a national citizen and voter ID card.
Issuing such a card to all U.S. citizens would be part of immigration reform and clearer enforcement of existing Federal law. However, it would also be linked to automatic national voter registration. Every citizen of the United States would be registered to vote for life in every Federal election as a right of citizenship. In addition, national elections would be established as a Federal holiday. Voter turnout would increase, making the country more democratic and more representative. Issues of voter fraud would disappear; and a step taken towards rationalizing the immigration system. Some conservatives and perhaps some civil libertarians would cry Big Brother, but the majority of Americans already accept Social Security cards and cards for Medicare. A national ID card could be produced in a harder to counterfeit format than current Social Security cards or state driver's licenses. Greater voter participation would mean more attention to issues which affect those in the lower half of the income spectrum. UC Irvine law professor Richard Hasen, author of The Voting Wars--From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown, the best account of our flawed voting system, concludes with a recommendation similar to mine, but Hasen is pessimistic that Congress would ever pass such a reform. Until a President steps up and fights for it, we won't know.
Global Warming In his first term, Obama's approach to the issue was a failure. Both the policy approach -- cap and trade -- and the rhetoric were wrong headed. The clearest and simplest policy tool is a carbon tax with a built-in progressive rebate. Of course, there also needs to be international climate change negotiations, especially with China. But, to make progress at home and abroad, Obama first needs to win over public opinion on the consequences of global warming for Americans. He has scientific opinion on his side. The summer's headlines practically scream it out: "The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic" (New York Times, July 30, 2012), "Study Predicts More Hot Spells in SoCal," (Los Angeles Times, June 31, 2012), "Study Finds More of Earth Is Hotter and Says Global Warming Is at Work," (New York Times, August 7, 2012), "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," (Rolling Stone, August 2, 2102).
Obama should appoint a Presidential Commission on The Economic and Social Consequences of Global Warming, and task it with reporting back to him on the costs of drought, wild fires, and extreme weather to the U.S. economy and on the predicted future costs of such change in the climate to the U.S. The only way that he can build sufficient political momentum to pass a carbon tax is to publicize the immediate as well as future costs of global warming for Americans, rather than predictions of future disasters in other countries. As with economic inequality, the issue will also require a more creative and aggressive communications strategy from the White House.
Drones and long distance killing: Obama has partly inoculated himself against Republican charges of weakness abroad by ordering the raid which led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. More controversial is the ad hoc legal regime which he is using to support his "kill decisions" in the White House where he personally okays the targeted killing of jihadist leaders in counties such as Pakistan and Somalia. The way that Obama has handled these issues is explored in a new book, Kill or Capture - The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, by former Newsweek journalist Daniel Klaidman.
"Ever since having taken office, feeling the full weight of his responsibility in preventing the next terrorist attack," concludes Klaidman:
Obama had been guided by a different set of metrics: the more terrorists killed or captured, the less likely one of them would slip through and attack the homeland. Without notice or public debate, Obama had gone far beyond what his liberal supporters ever imagined, appalling them with a steady torrent of targeted killings and other kinetic operations. It had to be said that he succeeded far beyond all expectations... by early 2012, al-Qaeda was largely a spent force, its leaders dead or in hiding, its finances drying up, and its seemingly endless pipeline of recruits blocked.
Whatever the short term success of Obama's actions, there are larger issues which are raised by the use of drones. For what remains of the summer, I recommend that you read a new thriller, Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez, a chilling, harrowing depiction of the near future when other countries have drones at their disposal, and the "kill decision" is not made legally or carefully by an American President, but is programmed into the drones' micro-chips. I hope that the President will take Suarez' novel on Air Force One as his end of summer reading.
There is already the beginnings of a global drone industry and a military-drone industrial complex. With success against al-Qaeda to his credit, it is time for Obama to step back and call for an international conference on the use (and abuse of drones) and the development of international legal protocols which regulate the use of drones in espionage and war.
A New Industrial Strategy: Good jobs for Americans in the future require a strong manufacturing base. President Obama recognized this when he supported financial assistance and restructuring for General Motors -- but it was just crisis management not long term policy. Attention to the state of U.S. industry and how it can intelligently be supported should be part of the government's economic policy tools. The best way to accomplish this is to restructure the Department of Commerce along the lines outlined in my Huffington Post article at the beginning of Obama's first term--"Advice to the President: Abolish the Commerce Department," (February 16, 2009), spinning off agencies like the Census and the Weather Bureau, and establishing a streamlined Department of Industry and Trade, supported by a high quality Commercial Service. It was the smart thing to do four years ago, and it still is. This time around, he could also appoint progressive economists like James Galbraith and Barry Bluestone who understand the importance of industrial policy.
After Obama wins, we should expect more of him than he has shown in his first term. We should hold him to a standard of fighting leadership which the seriousness of the issues of our times requires -- and make his legacy one we fight for and will be proud of. We shouldn't settle for less. As Bob Marley says (and the Jamaican track team takes to heart), "Don't give up the fight."