Voice

5 Big Ideas That Can Save Obama's Presidency

Because Romney-bashing just won't cut it.

The disappointment of Barack Obama's supporters is palpable. He has gone from being a vessel for their greatest hopes into being a confirmation of their deepest fears about the American political system. 

The excitement he generated was associated not with his gift for oratory or any platform plank but with the promise of longed-for fundamental change. What's more, the change seemed guaranteed. Anyone could see he would not be like other presidents. Merely electing him would undo age-old injustices.

So his election was a transcendent moment. And then we waited to see when the changes would come. But sadly, it thus far seems Obama's singular act of creativity was in winning election. He was what was new. He was the change. Since then, he has gone from defying Washington convention to embodying it. His rhetoric about a new way of doing business, higher standards, a creative vision for the future has proved to be just that: words. Business has been as usual. Values have been murky. Cash and special interests have remained king. And as for that bright shining future, we're still waiting.

Not only are we doing things the same old way, but the same old way doesn't seem to be working for the country as well as it once did.

In the past week I have had the chance to speak with three dyed-in-the-wool Democratic donors. One said to me, "The last set of jobless numbers was a game-changer." Another, a former senior government official, spent half an hour discussing with me why Republican candidate Mitt Romney might do a better job. His thesis? That Obama is an ineffective manager and a weak leader, so while Romney is a deeply flawed candidate, he might do better. Certainly, this former official believed, he would be a better manager.

Obama's "the private sector is doing fine" line on Friday, June 8, did not help. It was not, as some have suggested, a gaffe. It was a calculated misrepresentation. But it gave the impression that he was out of touch -- which in political terms is even worse than being a self-serving dissembler. It raised the specter that Obama might defy conventional wisdom and resemble not Jimmy Carter but rather George H.W. Bush as a once-popular successful manager of foreign policy who was seen as unable to help the average citizen deal with his or her problems. But it hardly matters. Carter, Bush 41 -- they were both one-term presidents.

What's more, the growing political concern over administration leaks on national security issues -- and newly launched Justice Department investigation into said leaks -- seems likely to grow into another problem for the president. Some of the details in several recent New York Times articles and books could only have come from senior officials on Obama's national security team (whether in the White House or elsewhere in the government). This made the president's huffy indignation over accusations associated with the leaks seem ridiculous. And remember, in Washington, it's never the crime that gets you; it's always the coverup. So that space, too, bears watching over the months before the election.

As does the deepening eurocrisis. It can undercut U.S. economic growth and global market confidence in ways that outstrip any personal issues people may or may not have with the president or problems associated with his team.

That said, none of the Democratic stalwarts with whom I spoke was ready to give up. And the prospects of Romney led by the nose by the Republican right on the Hill, and of that choosing Supreme Court justices, seemed chilling to this group. These Democrats still want to support Obama -- while hoping for a new justification to do so.

The refrain from each of them was the same: The president needs to step it up in the next few months and articulate a clear vision for the future of the U.S. economy.

Perplexingly, Obama has yet to do that.

Indeed, one of the striking problems associated with the Obama administration is that its disciplined, process-driven "team of rivals" approach to national security stands in stark contrast with a spluttering, low-grade, uncoordinated approach to economic policymaking that has left most of the economic cabinet on the sidelines, reserved big decisions for a small group of pols in the White House, and ignored some of the really substantial resources that exist within the administration. Strange that we are in the midst of an economic crisis and this White House still can't muster among its own cabinet a team of visible surrogates who are out on the hustings, delivering a coordinated message. Can you imagine George W. Bush's Treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, or Clinton Treasury chief Bob Rubin being as invisible as Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is in the midst of such a crisis moment?

If there's a second term, this must be addressed. But for now, what the president needs to do is recognize that he needs policy ideas that are as bold in 2012 as the prospect of the first African-American president was in 2008. He needs to fill the creativity void that has sucked the enthusiasm from many of his core supporters.

It's not impossible. Even at this late date, he can sketch out a vision of American renewal that is plausible and built around a few big ideas to restore real enthusiasm among his supporters.

The basic argument is simple: America is on the verge of a new period of great growth built around three once-in-a-lifetime realities: a new energy paradigm fueled by the recent boom in U.S. oil and natural gas production, an exceptional head start in being able to lead the world in the intellectual capital that will drive the industrial revolution 3.0, and a great opportunity to use the low price of dollars to invest in a new American infrastructure. Add to this some courage to set America's fiscal priorities straight, including distinguishing between investment and spending, focusing on growth now and fiscal tightening later, fixing the broken U.S. tax code, and cutting spending where it must be cut. Finally, build it all upon a commitment to restoring the American Dream, focusing on reducing inequality, enhancing social mobility, and working hard for our children's interests rather than feathering the nest for ourselves.

Here are a few examples of how Obama could pull it off:

1. Taxes. The president should steal the jump on the Republicans and propose a massive simplification of the tax code. Loopholes should be eliminated. Filing should be made easier. And tax rates for the wealthy should go back up to reasonable rates -- say the historically low levels of Bill Clinton's administration. New revenue that the country will need should come from the promise of a value-added tax and perhaps a carbon tax to be introduced once the recovery has started more vigorously in, say, three to five years.

2. Trade. Obama set audacious goals for doubling American exports and is on track to reach them. He should take more credit for this. As for the future of trade reform -- with the Doha round of negotiations to expand global trade dead and the Trans-Pacific Partnership resonating only with wonks -- it's time for a new big idea. How about a U.S.-EU Free Economic Zone? Together, they're the biggest market in the world. What's more, both need growth; the Europeans pay their workers well enough that usual labor arguments shouldn't adhere; and we could make it about regulatory coordination (on financial markets, say) as well as removing remaining trade obstacles (on agricultural trade, the Euros are going to have a hard time maintaining historically high subsidies, so now is the time to strike). And coordination and closer ties will help us more effectively pressure emerging markets to remove barriers and raise their standards.

3. Defense. The administration should own defense reform, not tiptoe around it. While the Republican Party seeks to demagogue fears about pending military cuts, ignoring the waste, redundancies, obsolete systems, and fat in the current budget, the White House has been timid about embracing the other side of the argument. That would entail noting how failing to rationalize the military's enormous budget after a decade of massive spending will itself weaken the country. But more importantly, there is a way to make the case that the country can make substantial cuts to spending while simultaneously strengthening its force -- provided it comes with a vision for what a 21st-century military looks like. A revolution is afoot -- from unmanned aircraft to ever-more-precise munitions to cyberweapons to a greater focus on rapid-deployment, special-ops teams -- at a time when most branches of the U.S. military are built around 20th-century concepts and systems. So Obama should talk about investing in new systems, not cutting old ones, and what kind of jobs that will create. And he should commit to preserving the jobs of those in the military. The president has helped create a new doctrine for conflict -- he should own it and expand upon it.

4. Jobs. Take the pillars described above -- energy, high-value-added manufacturing, and infrastructure -- and you can describe how the United States can fill the 30 million job openings it needs to between now and 2025. We need big ideas -- and real ones. But they're there. Education is a big part of this. Obama should get behind major immigration reform to let people who come and earn advanced degrees get green cards. Have one big memorable idea on education that sets the president apart. How about saying teachers don't pay taxes on their first $100,000 of income? Immediately double their salaries; the cost is manageable, and America starts attracting better people to teach our kids. Or use technology to advance a national curriculum -- standing up to teachers' unions on this would be a Sistah Souljah moment that the country would cheer.

5. Energy. The idea of real energy independence once seemed like a dream. It should now be a national goal. The United States is already an energy exporter. According to a recent Citibank report, by 2020 "the U.S. should see combined domestic supply and Canadian imports of oil reach over 20 million barrels per day, while U.S. oil demand falls 2 million to below 17 million barrels per day, leaving a 3 million barrel per day surplus available for export." And with new gas discoveries, alternative energy technologies, offshore resources, and the promise of huge Canadian reserves, we ought to be able to say that North America can be energy independent by 2030. Certainly, we can set the goal of no longer depending on a drop of oil from the volatile, dangerous Middle East. Tom Friedman has been right about this "moon shot" for many years now, and with each month new discoveries suggest it is more rather than less achievable. Start with a commitment to framing in the next 12 months a whole-of-the-economy, whole-of-government energy policy -- just the kind of strategy the United States has never had until now.

Will this cure what ails the Obama campaign? Not instantly. But here's the most important point: The Obama team needs to accept that its legitimate distaste for the Republican theme of economic Darwinism (campaign slogan: Let's make Americans work harder to make the 1 percent even richer) is not enough around which to build a campaign. The White House has to offer a real alternative, not just to Romney but to many of the sometimes disappointing, business-as-usual, Obama results of the past three and a half years.

Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

Argument

The Revolution Will Be Minimized

The men and women who sparked the protests that toppled the Mubarak regime face a painful choice in the upcoming presidential election. But they still can make the best of a bad situation.

On June 16 and 17, revolutionary Egyptians will face an unimaginably painful choice in the run-off to the presidential election, an event that was supposed to be a cause for celebration rather than a somber moment.

On one side stands Mohammed Morsi, the "backup" candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood after its first choice, Khairat al-Shater, was disqualified. The Brotherhood has increasingly earned the distrust of revolutionary and "civil" (the word Egyptians use to describe political liberals) forces by working in the time since the fall of Mubarak to aggressively consolidate its hegemony over Egyptian political life. On the other side is Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's final prime minister, close confidante, rumored preferred choice for heir, and a powerful representative of the very regime Egyptians lost their lives fighting to bring down.

In retrospect, the road to this moment seems regrettably logical. It is the result of missteps by revolutionary forces, a growing disconnect between many of the activists and a significant percentage of Egyptian society, and the maneuverings of an Egyptian "deep state" that proved more powerful than previously calculated.

First, revolutionaries themselves admit that it was wrong to leave Tahrir Square on Feb. 11, 2011, after Mubarak had officially stepped down, without installing a suitable government or a setting a detailed roadmap for the democratic transition. What's more, it is argued that they miscalculated the breadth, depth, and reasons of the support for the revolution among the Egyptian people.

From the very beginning, there was a considerable difference in priorities among the groups that took to the streets and squares. For many of Egypt's upper and middle class revolutionaries, the main call to arms was the political oppression and human rights abuses by the Mubarak regime. But for Egypt's underprivileged, it was the dire living conditions, gross disparities in the concentration of wealth, and extreme economic corruption that served as a rallying cry. The oppressive conduct of Mubarak's security apparatus before the revolution, and the unprecedentedly violent conduct during, also played a key role in shocking the nation into rebellion.

When Mubarak was eventually toppled, this rift broke out into the open. Many Egyptians felt the revolution had largely achieved its goals -- 61 percent according to a May 2011 poll -- and that it was time for stability, security and reconstruction in the country. However, activists believed that Mubarak's fall was only the beginning of the road, and that the situation called for continued protest and action for the advancement of the revolution's goals, particularly against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). With successive rounds of clashes with security forces, the most recent coming in May when protesters and security forces faced off outside the Ministry of Defense, protesters received the brunt of blame for fomenting instability.

But the revolutionaries' challenges went beyond tactics to the very vision of Egypt's future. Activist groups, in part due to the grassroots nature of the movement, were late in generating detailed proposals to achieve their goals. For example, while everyone was united in demands to "purge the judiciary" or "restructure the Interior Ministry," there were few concrete plans to achieve these goals, and fewer still that were effectively marketed to public opinion. As a result, activist groups lost many chances to pressure the current military regime and state institutions at the height of the revolution's popularity.

The revolutionaries' work was made even more difficult by the rise of new political forces and rifts within revolutionary ranks, which made it easier for SCAF to divide and conquer. The political ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood is part of this story, but the meteoric rise of the ultra-traditionalist Salafist movement also dumbfounded everyone's calculations. The Salafists' growing presence on the political scene proved worrisome for Egypt's more moderate and liberal segments of society, furthering for many their tolerance of SCAF's tight grip on power.

The Brotherhood also increasingly abandoned a more centrist path and earlier promises to widely share power, including breaking a pledge that it would not field a presidential candidate. Rather, they embarked on a grasp for power, and increasingly employed conservative rhetoric in an effort to solidify the support of its traditional base as the Salafists rose in prominence. Several disagreements arose between the Brothers and other forces, ranging from the March 2011 constitutional amendments referendum to the Brotherhood's recent efforts to dominate the constitutional assembly. These controversies, in addition to a deep ideological divide, laid the foundation of the revolutionaries' growing distrust of the Brotherhood and its candidate.

Perhaps most crucially, revolutionary and political forces underestimated the size, depth, and power of the remnants of Egypt's former regime. It became clear over the past year that the country's military and security institutions were determined to remain independent powerhouses on the Egyptian political scene and would fight efforts towards greater civilian control. With a climate of rising fear regarding religious conservatism and national instability, a divided revolutionary movement, as well as significant dissatisfaction with parliament's performance, the "deep state" began to regain some of its power, and few were surprised with Shafiq's eventual catapulting into the second round of the elections.

The more mainstream "revolutionary candidates," most prominently neo-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, were woefully disorganized to fend off this threat. The candidates severely underestimated Shafiq's chances, and ran independently in the elections rather than uniting behind one candidate or a single ballot. Together, Sabbahi and Aboul Fotouh captured 8.8 million votes in last month's first round of voting -- far and away the largest single bloc in the election. However, because neither of these individual candidates were among the top two vote-getters, their voices were eliminated before the run-off election. A historic opportunity for the movement to lead was squandered.

After the slew of setbacks, the centrist heart of the Tahrir movement finds itself at a crossroads. Activists could pursue a "boycott-the-vote" campaign, or even spoil their ballots in an attempt to discredit both candidates and the election itself. Also, they could intensify efforts to prove allegations of electoral fraud, which include voter bribery and the blocking of campaign representatives from observing the vote. Moreover, they could -- and have already taken some steps to -- finally create some formal leadership to address both short-and-long-term goals of the revolutionary and civil movements. Another option would be to mount public pressure against the legality of Shafiq's candidacy in the hopes that an Egyptian court, which is set to rule on June 14, will uphold the constitutionality of a law that excludes top Mubarak-era officials from holding office.

There is another way. In return for their support in defeating Shafiq, the revolutionary and civil forces could demand reassurances from the Brotherhood that they would be ensured one or more powerful vice presidents to represent them, a coalition government headed by a non-Brotherhood prime minister, a constitutional assembly that includes their voices, and reassurances on the future of human rights in Egypt. While some will argue Morsi is capable of winning the elections on his own -- relying solely on the support of the Brotherhood and the Salafists -- broadening his popular support base carries undeniable benefits. It would confer an undeniable national and revolutionary legitimacy as well as a more definite mandate as president, which the Brotherhood immensely needs at this point.

The Brotherhood, on its part, has expressed willingness to consider some of these proposals, but have yet to give the concrete guarantees that could decidedly calm fears, particularly given its continuing political feud with liberal group over the composition of the body that will draft Egypt's new constitution. It would be a dramatic risk to take for Egypt's "civil" revolutionary forces, given their dissatisfaction with the Brotherhood's recent track record, but it could be the only option to save the revolution from a potentially fatal blow. The revolutionaries may not become king in this round, but they might have a chance to become kingmakers.

MOHAMMED HOSSAM/AFP/Getty Images