Obama should seize his moment
If election campaigns are supposed to be an exercise in coming to grips with our biggest problems, then the one we just went through was a dismal failure. Our only real solution — a strategy to reignite consistent growth so we can narrow our income gaps and lift the middle class — never got a serious airing. Instead, each side was focused on how to secure a bigger slice of a shrinking pie for its own base. This lousy campaign produced the worst of all outcomes: President Barack Obama won on a platform that had little do with our core problems and is only a small part of the solution — raising taxes on the wealthy — so he has little incentive to rethink his strategy. And the Republicans did not lose badly enough — they held the House — to have to fully rethink their strategy. It does not bode well.
In his book “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth,” Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman argues that periods of economic growth have been essential to American political progress; periods of economic prosperity were periods of greater social, political and religious harmony and tolerance. On Sunday, The Times’ Annie Lowrey wrote a piece quoting Friedman, who wondered aloud whether we’re not now entering a reverse cycle, “in which our absence of growth is delivering political paralysis, and the political paralysis preserves the absence of growth.”
I think he’s right and that the only way to break out of this deadly cycle is with extraordinary leadership. Republicans and Democrats would have to govern in just the opposite way they ran their campaigns — by offering bold plans that not only challenged the other’s base but also their own and thereby mobilized the center, a big majority, behind their agenda, to break the deadlock. If either party does that, not only will it win the day but the country will win as well.
What would that look like? If the Republican Party had a brain it would give up on its debt-ceiling gambit and announce instead that it wants to open negotiations immediately with Obama on the basis of his own deficit commission, the Simpson-Bowles plan. That would at least make the GOP a serious opposition party again — with a platform that might actually appeal outside its base and challenge the president in a healthy way. But the GOP would have to embrace the tax reforms and spending cuts in Simpson-Bowles first. Fat chance. And that’s a pity.
As for Obama, if he really wants to lead, he will have to finally trust the American people with the truth. I’d love to see him use his Jan. 21 Inaugural Address and his Feb. 12 State of the Union message as a one-two punch to do just that — offer a detailed, honest diagnosis and then a detailed, honest prescription.
On the diagnosis side, Obama needs to explain to Americans the world in which they’re now living. It’s a world in which the increasing velocity of globalization and the information technology revolution are reshaping every job, workplace and industry. As a result, the mantra that if you “just work hard and play by rules” you should expect a middle-class lifestyle is no longer operable. Today you need to work harder and smarter, and learn and relearn faster and longer to be in the middle class. The high-wage, middle-skilled job is a thing of the past. Today’s high-wage or decent-wage jobs all require higher skills, passion or curiosity. Government’s job is to help provide citizens with as many lifelong learning opportunities as possible to hone such skills.
In the State of the Union, I’d love to see Obama lay out a detailed plan for tax reform, spending cuts and investments — to meet the real scale of our problem and spur economic growth. We’ll get much more bang for our buck by deciding now what we’re going to do in all three areas and signaling markets that we are putting in place a truly balanced approach but gradually phasing it in. If you tell investors and savers that we’re going to put our fiscal house in order with a credible plan, but one that is gradually phased in, all the money sitting on the sidelines paralyzed by uncertainty will get off the sidelines and we’ll have a real stimulus.
As for investment, I’d love to see the president launch us on an aspirational journey. My choice would be to connect every home and business in America to the Internet at 1 gigabit per second, or about 200 times faster than our current national household average, in five years. In an age when mining big data will be a huge industry, when online lifelong learning will be a vital necessity, and when we can’t stimulate our way to prosperity but have to invent our way there, no project would be more relevant.
I still believe that America’s rich and the middle classes would pay more taxes and trim entitlements if they thought it was for a plan that was fair, would truly address our long-term fiscal imbalances and would set America on a journey of renewal that would ensure our kids have a crack at the American dream. Then again, I may be wrong. Maybe my baby-boomer generation really does intend to eat it all and leave our kids a ticking debt bomb. If only we had a second-term president, unencumbered by ever having to run again, who was ready to test what really bold leadership might produce.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.