Just two weeks before the election, President Obama finally released a second term agenda. "Good timing," said John Nichols of The Nation. People are paying attention. Really?
Mitt Romney is. While saying that his own agenda is one of "big ideas" that will change the country, he asserts that Obama "has an agenda about smaller and smaller and smaller things."
Do the American people want to debate about whose agenda is bigger? Like most guys, both Romney and Obama tend to exaggerate their size.
Until this past week, when Obama referred to his agenda, he was generally referring to the goals that are laid out on his website and were included in his acceptance speech. The same can be said for Romney.
But goals aren't an agenda. For the most part, the Democratic and Republican Parties don't disagree on goals: a strong economy, millions of jobs, peace. Even reducing abortions. They just disagree on what policies will get us there.
Here are the policies that Obama has discussed enough that you may have heard about them. This agenda isn't small the way Romney characterizes it. But is it big enough?
• Individual Tax Reform: Return upper income voters to the higher Clinton tax rates. A
new Alternative Minimum Tax at 30% for those earning over $1 million (the Buffett Rule).
• Corporate Tax Reform: Reduce the top corporate rate to 28%.
• Immigration: The Dream Act
• Employment: $60 billion in Infrastructure Investment as part of a larger $447 billion
jobs program (half the amount saved by winding down our wars)
• Health Care: Implement Obama Care in 2014.
• Foreign Policy: End the war in Afghanistan in 2014.
• Energy: Support all forms of energy production
Three of these, health care, Afghanistan, and energy (for the most part), are implementing policies already in place.
There are so many bigger ideas out there for a second term, including dropping "cap and trade" for a carbon tax which would return money to the American people -- modeled after the Alaska Permanent Fund (which Alaskans love -- even Sarah Palin). Exchanging tax reductions for a progressive Alternative Minimum Tax -- for both individuals and corporations -- that builds on the Buffett Rule (haven't heard about that for a while). How about transforming education by getting more adults in the classroom- - young Social Security recipients to provide one or more mentors for every elementary and middle school student? To name just a few.
But an agenda is about more than differentiating yourself from your opponent.
In other words, it's about more than campaigning. It's about governing.
The Obama team appears to believe that campaigning and governing are virtually unrelated. Really?
We saw campaign tactics trump all else in Obama's first campaign. There was the way Obama framed "bipartisanship" back in 2008. The campaign positioning that Obama would change Washington, DC was a big success. Never once did Obama state this truth: You can't be bi-partisan by yourself. While you can try as hard as you can, it takes both parties to "change Washington." His failure to stress this -- and to put pressure on Republican legislators -- has crippled his presidency.
And four years later? Conventional wisdom was that Obama was going to run against a "do-nothing" House of Representatives. He had his latest opportunity during Monday's debate when he was criticized for the defense budget sequester, which only exists because House Republicans wouldn't even raise the debt ceiling (and which threatens the one jobs program that the Republicans support -- the defense budget).
But Obama is doing little to remind the electorate that the Republicans are to blame for the inability of Congress to accomplish almost anything over the past two years. Or the hundreds of Republican filibusters. And with Congress' favorability at record lows at that.
Now, it can be smart politics to avoid virtually any discussion of what policies you will promote in your second term. "Small ball" did work for President Clinton in his re-election campaign in 1996. (School uniforms anyone?) But, can you name anything Clinton accomplished in his second term? (Insert your own Monica Lewinsky joke here.)
When your political strategy works, congratulations, but what is your governing strategy? Elections aren't just about selecting a candidate. They are about conferring legitimacy on that candidate's policy agenda.
This is a special burden on the executive branch in this country. Legislators can position themselves with little care what the executive branch -- and even their own party -- thinks. In parliamentary systems, the legislative and executive branches are one, so focusing on an agenda is a given.
But in our "separate branches of government" system, it's quite different. Presidents (and governors) need a legislative branch that shares their philosophy, their agenda. Presidents must campaign in a way that recognizes this need. And where is the president's call for a Democratic Congress?
Obama needs Democrats to get elected if he intends to enact a second term agenda. Yes, it's partisan. But can't he find a way to articulate it without becoming too angry, edgy, whatever? Reagan showed how to do this repeatedly.
If you don't have much of an agenda, however, does that mean you don't care much about the Democrats controlling Congress?
When it comes to your mandate -- and the number of Democrats in Congress -- size does matter.