Define the future, not the foe
President Barack Obama has a clear choice on how to approach the 2012 election: He can spend all his energy defining his Republican rival in as ugly a way as possible or he can spend all his energy defining the future in as credible a way as possible.
If he spends his energy defining the Republican nominee, there is a chance the president will win with 50.00001 percent of the vote and no mandate to do what needs doing.
If he spends his time defining the future in a credible way and offering a hard, tough, realistic pathway to get there, he will not only win, but he will have a mandate to take the country where we need to go.
I voted for Barack Obama, and I don’t want my money back. He’s never gotten the credit he deserves for bringing the economy he inherited back from the brink of a depression. He’s fought the war on terrorism in a smart and effective way. He’s making health care possible for millions of Americans with preexisting conditions, and he saved the auto industry. This is big stuff. But, as important as all of these achievements are, they pale in comparison to the defining challenge of Obama’s presidency: Can he put the country on a sustainable economic recovery path at a time when, if we fail, it could be the end of the American dream?
I believe the best way for Obama to do that is by declaring today that he made a mistake in spurning his own deficit reduction commission, chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, and is now adopting Simpson Bowles — which already has Republican and Democratic support — as his long-term fiscal plan to be phased in after a nearterm stimulus. If he did that, he would win politically and create a national consensus that would trump his opponents, right and left.
“I think what happened with Simpson-Bowles was an absolute tragedy,” Warren Buffett said on CNBC last week. “ They work like a devil for 10 months. ... They compromise. They bring in people as far apart as (Democratic Sen. Dick) Durbin and (Republican Sen. Tom) Coburn to get them to sign on and then they’re totally ignored. I think that’s a travesty.”
The president will never get the near-term stimulus through that he wants and that the economy needs without combining it with a credible bipartisan, multiyear deficit-reduction plan like Simpson-Bowles. Moreover, “a free-standing stimulus that is not combined with a credible multiyear plan that truly stabilizes our fiscal imbalances would not solve our problems,” argues Maya MacGuineas, the president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, “ because if nobody knows what is waiting around the corner, after the stimulus runs out,” many people will just take that money and stuff it in a mattress “rather than in investments or spending.”
Obama aides argue that so many GOP lawmakers are committed to making his presidency fail, or have signed pledges to an anti-tax cult, that they would never buy into any grand bargain. I think that is true for a lot of Republicans in Congress. But I have some questions: Why are the Republicans getting away with this? Why are so many independents and even Democrats who voted for Obama sitting on their hands? Obama owns the bully pulpit of the presidency and he’s losing to Grover Norquist? Also, assuming it is all true about the GOP, how can Obama trump them? I think he can, if he leads in a new way.
I think America’s broad center understands very clearly that the country is in trouble and that the Republican Party has gone nuts. But when they look at Obama on the deficit, they feel something is missing. People know leadership when they see it — when they see someone taking a political risk, not just talking about doing so, not just saying, “I’ll jump if the other guy jumps.” In times of crisis, leaders jump first, lay out what truly needs to be done to fix the problem, not just to win re-election, and by doing so earn the right to demand that others do the same.
What would it look like if the president was offering such leadership? First, he’d be proposing a deficit-cutting plan that matches the scale of our problem — one with substantial tax reform and revenue increases, a gasoline tax, deep defense cuts and cutbacks to both Social Security and Medicare. That is the Simpson Bowles plan, and it should be Obama’s new starting point for negotiations. The deficit plan Obama put out last September is nowhere near as serious. “It is watered-down Simpson-Bowles,” said MacGuineas. “Most people don’t even know it exists.”
Second, he’d offer a plan in which the wealthy have to pay their fair share and more, because they’ve had a great two decades. But everyone, including the middle class, has to contribute something. This has to be a national effort. Third, he would offer a plan that is aspirational. It would not just be a roadmap to balancing the budget but to making America great again through reignited economic growth.
My gut says that if the president lays out such a plan — one that begins with his taking all the political risks on himself and then demanding the GOP and his own party follow — he will be both defining himself and the future in a way that would earn him so much centrist support and respect that it would leave every possible Republican opponent in the dust, no matter how obstructionist they are or want to be.
Go big, Mr. President. You will win, and so will America.
THOMAS FRIEDMAN writes for The New York Times.