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Mitch Rofsky

Mitch Rofsky

Posted: November 2, 2010 11:15 AM

With the mid-term results coming in, a classic political battle is shaping up. Not between Democrats and Republicans, but between Democrats and Democrats.

President Barack Obama is now saying that he can't be seen as a "tax-and-spend" liberal. This may not be the accurate frame: Americans don't want presidents who are seen as too ideologically rigid. But it's close enough.

At the same time, liberals like Thomas Geoghegan, John Judis, and many others step forward to argue that Obama hasn't been liberal enough.

If Obama listens to them, he is going to be in deeper trouble. He cannot just position himself as a left-liberal and expect political success.

This is not to say that Geohegan, et. al. don't have a grain of truth. Obama was right to promote ideas that his base wanted -- that's the job of the President in his first two years of office. But in the second half of his first term, he needs to develop innovative programs that appeal to moderates, perhaps even some conservatives, as well.

The real key is this: He shouldn't use Bill Clinton as a role model. Clinton tilted towards "small ball" -- i.e. manuals on school uniforms -- when he wasn't accepting conservative financial deregulation. We've seen the results.

No, there are plenty of big ideas that would appeal to a broader audience which many -- if not most -- liberals would support while giving Obama a less ideological image:

1. Start Phasing Out Affirmative Action Based on Race in Favor Of Affirmative Action Based on Income

Should Sasha and Malia Obama receive affirmative action regarding college consideration? There's a big African American middle-class out there. Let's celebrate it. The Supreme Court has ruled that affirmative action is only "transitional". Obama is the best person in the country to lead this transition.

2. Expedite Public Works by Limiting Time for Required Environmental Analysis

I run an environmental business and environmental analysis is critical, of course. But so is getting people back to work. It's taking too long for so-called shovel-ready projects to get going -- making it difficult to use public works programs as a counter-cyclical remedy. In fact, Obama now says there was no such thing as shovel-ready projects when he entered office. Without public works, tax cuts are virtually the only way to stimulate the economy. Environmental analysis doesn't need to be dropped. It needs to be fixed.

3. Everybody Who Receives Welfare Works -- and to the Extent Possible, Gets a Living Wage

Perhaps it made sense at one time to pay women who stay home. But feminism changed all that. Maternity leave, sure. But everybody who gets a check from the government, who is able to work, works -- either for the government or a non-profit.

But, if we're going to require people to work, then we need to pay them. Corporations can't afford to pay everyone a living wage, so government should explore providing vouchers for child care and transportation sufficient to get people close to a living wage.

If the formerly dependent get private sector jobs -- as many of them will -- that don't pay a living wage, phase this support out as their wages grow. And let teenagers work part-time below the minimum. (The notion that many employers will fire experienced workers for teenagers is just false -- and can be banned regardless.)

4. End Earmarks

Does this only appeal to conservatives? Hardly.

5. Dedicate the Estate Tax to... Something

Believe it or not, there are taxes that the American people accept: gasoline and Social Security taxes. These taxes are dedicated to funding popular programs. The Estate Tax will be perpetually vulnerable unless it is dedicated to something. How about making it the source of the Social Security private investment funds that the conservatives are so fond of? All newborns could divide up the estate tax proceeds and invest it for 60+ years in an equity fund until retirement. Historic rates of return would provide every couple with nearly $400,000 -- in today's dollars -- when 50% of today's households hold no equities, without touching Social Security.

But if not that... something.

6. Graduate the Alternative Minimum Tax

The ATM needs fixing. Fix it by dropping any application to the middle class and graduating it for households earning over $1 million by 1% for each million up to the max marginal rate. Include dividends and capital gains. Eliminate the cap on Social Security taxes and include them as well (with an offsetting credit up to that same floor on the AMT at $425,000). That raises some $200 billion annually. Then index it! (Conservatives insist on a break for capital gains? Limit it to venture capital. In other words, no breaks for publicly-traded stocks or unimproved commercial real estate. Then a resulting economic benefit is at least plausible.) It raises more money than raising the top marginal rate-nearly all from people earning over $1 million.

7. For Corporations: Reduce the Top Marginal Tax Rate, Eliminate Loopholes -- and Institute a Graduated ATM as Well

Two years ago, Exxon was the most profitable corporation in history -- and received a tax refund? Google's effective rate tax rate isn't 35%, it's 2%. Come on. But drop the top rate in exchange.

8. Encourage Retired Social Security Recipients to Become Classroom Mentors

Schools are the province of children and we see how that's working out. If kids aren't getting the parenting they need, as conservatives allege, then we need to get real adults in their lives. Each kid should have one or two mentors teaching them reading, math, etc. In fact, being an elementary or middle school teacher should be as much about managing mentors as teaching classes of as many as 30+ children. Teachers Unions will object? Convince them.

9. Exchange Labor's Role of Defending Bad Workers for a Role in Helping to Finance Companies

Management has changed a lot over the past century. Unions haven't. Lots of socially responsible businesses exist today and guess what: Their managers don't want labor unions either -- because labor unions aren't seen as supporting the success of the business. Rather, they're seen as protecting featherbedding, absentee employees, not to mention those who are drunk or abusive. Labor law should be adjusted so this role of the unions is traded off for the ability of unions to invest a fraction of their pensions in companies they work for. If they had a stake in their business' success, more managers would be open to working with them, rather than fighting them. And this is already going on in the construction industry -- and working.

10. A Sunshine Act for Corporate Subsidies and More Accurate Financial Reporting...

Think most government efforts are for the poor? Let's find out. How about a quarterly report on corporate subsidies of all kinds? And how about a GDP (income) statement that excludes waste. And, given that business borrows money for assets, a balance sheet for the US that reports what portion of our debt is appropriate as well.

11. Scrap "Cap and Trade." Use the Alaska Permanent Fund as a Model to Accurately Price Carbon and Become Energy Independent. Everybody Gets a Check.

And since we know the mature industry of fossil fuels receive ten times the subsidy of the innovative alternative fuels industry -- end their subsidies now.

12. Start Increasing the Number of Federal Holidays to Twenty Six, Roughly One Every Two Weeks, With the Goal of Creating a Thirty Six Hour Work Week (Sixteen More Holidays) For One, Make Election Day a National Holiday

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Of course, this list is not exhaustive. Nor would every item be enacted into law. But this agenda would show that Obama can transcend ideology, which must be every President's goal. He would still be considered liberal, which is fine, just not rigidly so.

Conservatives don't want to remember it now, but President Reagan supported tax increases, pulled out of Lebanon, helped "save" Social Security, ran a substantial deficit, reached agreements with Gorbachev, and only paid lip service to conservative social issues. These moves contributed to his political success.

So don't just appeal to your base, Mr. President. With the right programs and outreach, you could appeal to a much broader group -- say the 51% you'll need to get reelected.