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Memo to: The New President

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Memo to: The New President

Date: 1/21/2009

From: A Fan

Dear President Obama,

Congratulations! It's was a tough fight, but you did it. Your message of hope, change, and putting this country right with the rest of the world won the day. Some very deep Bush fatigue re: the war and the economy helped a lot too.

I know you're anxious to get to work, but let's take a minute to reflect on how this all came down, and why your message was so resonant. Let me also take you back to some words you spoke way before this election got started, words that I believe set the stage for your historic campaign.

Throughout the summer and fall, one reason your economic message was so well-received was because it was so different from your opponent's. Though he fruitlessly tried to hide it, McCain gave you a wide opening by campaigning on thinly disguised Bushonomics, where the sole solution to every problem is another tax cut tilted toward the wealthiest families. In fact, extending the Bush tax cuts amounted to less than a third of his total cuts.

During the campaign, you insisted he explain how he was going to pay for these cuts without creating unsustainable debt levels (not to mention that these costs didn't even include his plan to keep the war going ad infinitum). Ultimately, he was forced to acknowledge that there's no way he could get there by going after earmarks. He would have had to cut deeply into programs that lots of us care a lot about, including Medicare, Social Security, kids' health care, education, child care, worker training, and so on.

In this regard, your victory hinged partly on voters' view of the role of government in our lives. McCain tried to run as a reformer, and, in fact, the old McCain might have had a decent case to make. But as time went on, it became clear that on most of the key issues--especially the war, the economy, and the role of government--he was stuck in the same bubble as Bush.

He tried to run on experience, but this turned out to be nothing more than a code-word for business as usual. That might have worked if we weren't mired in Iraq abroad and facing a recession at home. Given those realities, it was not hard to make the case that we've tried it their way, and it has failed us miserably.

You, on the other hand, convinced the electorate that there was another way forward. For some of us, that new vision first appeared well before you ran for the presidency, back when you were still finding your way to the Senate lunchroom. It was June of 2005, when you spoke these words:

"Like so much of the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there are those who believe that there isn't much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government--divvy it up by individual portions, in the form of tax breaks, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, their own education, and so on.

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it--Social Darwinism--every man or woman for him or herself. It's a tempting idea, because it doesn't require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say that those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford--tough luck...It let's us say to the child who was born into poverty--pull yourself up by your bootstraps...

But there is a problem. It won't work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that it's been government research and investment that made the railways possible and the internet possible. It's been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools that allowed us all to prosper. Our economic dependence depended on individual initiative. It depended on a belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity."

The first two paragraphs perfectly summed up Bush/McCain's YOYO (you're on your own) philosophy, the one that was solidly rejected in this election. And the third resets the balance between, on the one side, our core individualism and its links to unfettered market forces, and on the other, a WITT (we're in this together) agenda, without which we are nothing more than a bunch of profit-maximizing competitors.

Rebalancing these forces of course calls for major policy changes. I urge you to think big. Your campaign platform featured many great ideas, both large and small. Now's the time for the big ones: think universal health care, not tax credits. Think major infrastructure investment (both "green" and public), not tweaks to trade agreements. Think restored progressivity to the tax code, not closing a loophole or two.

Yet as much as it pains a wonkish DC-insider to say it, policy alone won't take us from YOYO to WITT. You and your new administration need to change the national mindset about the role and competency of government. As it stands, you've convinced enough of us that, unlike your opponent, you deserve a chance to make this country work the way we believe it should.

But talk about your heavy lifts. Bush, Cheney and Co. campaigned on government as a source of massive waste and incompetence, and they've fulfilled their prophecy with great aplomb. McCain strategically tried to make some noises about repairing the damage, but with his platform of tax cuts in the trillions, endless war, and deep cuts to key programs, he couldn't make the case.

To the contrary, this election's results signal a unique historical moment, wherein the majority of voters recognized that we simply can't meet the changes we face without an amply funded and competent federal government. In this regard, you've got a window of opportunity that hasn't been open in years, though one your opponents in Congress will be happy to throw you out of. You can't afford to get off on the wrong foot, the way Bill Clinton did with NAFTA. This means working quickly to unify your party's majority behind the big ideas noted above.

So get some rest, and then let's get started resetting the balance between markets and government, YOYO and WITT, the forces of division, conflict, and violence, and those of hope, unity, and peace.

Months ago, back in June of 2008, in a week when the Senate rejected a plan to tax carbon emissions, when we appeared to be endlessly mired in Iraq, when the unemployment rate spiked more quickly than it had in 22 years, you reminded us someday, we'd be able to tell our children that, "This was the moment--this was the time--when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals."

We're ready. Let's do it.