Matt Miller - The Archives

The Washington Post, January 22, 2014

Somewhere in the bowels of the White House a team is deep into drafts of next Tuesday's State of the Union address, fiddling with slogans to sex up what the president has pledged will be a "year of action." There's just one problem. With Obama at 40 percent in the polls and unable to enact big new laws, the "action" part seems hyped from the start. Meanwhile, the president's previous State of the Union catch phrases—like "Winning The Future"(2011) and "An America Built to Last" (2012)—vanished, like my daughter's Snapchat photos, within seconds.

Obama shouldn't resign himself to another Snapchat State of the Union when there's a better way. Instead of slapping some sure-to-be-forgotten label on a grab bag full of small bore ideas, why not use the unique public attention this event still commands to rally the nation around a few big goals, even if the political lineup won't permit their realization this year?

And to package these goals memorably, why not take a page from that pizza-marketer-turned-policy-statesman, Herman Cain?

Hold the laughter (and the pepperoni) for a minute, and hear me out. Whatever else you can say about Cain—for example, that his whole narcissistic adventure last time summed up what's surreal and off-putting about our political and media culture—one thing is certain. You knew the guy had a 9-9-9 tax plan. You may not recall exactly what it was (a 9 percent personal income tax, a 9 percent corporate income tax, and a 9 percent national sales tax), but it stuck in your head.

Well, it turns out Cain wasn't thinking big enough. What President Obama should trumpet next week is the power of 15. How can this number serve as an organizing device for policy goals that can renew America? Let us count the ways.

  1. $15 an hour. Obama could summon the nation to make the minimum all-in reward for work $15 an hour. He can explain that the burden of this all-in wage doesn't have to fall fully on employers; we should find an economically rational blend of a higher minimum wage and an expanded earned income tax credit to get there. But the president can frame and summon the country to the right conversation: a consensus that 15 bucks is the least a decent society should pay for work in the year 2014.

  2. 15 percent of gross domestic product for health costs. We're spending 18 percent of GDP on health care today, while other rich nations spend 10 percent to 12 percent, and Singapore spends an amazing 4 percent with better outcomes. Obama can say 15 percent of GDP is a reasonable near-term target that he'll ask all health-care stakeholders to work toward to get our crazy costs in line. By my back-of-the-envelope calculation, hitting 15 percent would save the equivalent of more than $4,000 per household every year . And that would be real savings—not the slower-than-expected cost growth goal of $2,500 a year that Obama says his reforms have achieved but which most people experience angrily as actual cost increases.

  3. 15 percent bank capital. Obama can explain that Dodd-Frank's regulations didn't go nearly far enough in raising bank capital from around 3 percent of assets to between 5 percent and 9 percent , now that the dust has cleared. Prudent Switzerland, by contrast, requires 19 percent for large international banks. To avoid a repeat of our massive bank bailouts, America should raise capital requirements to—you guessed it—15 percent.

  4. 15 percent corporate tax. Okay, it's not as low as Cain's 9 percent, but Republicans and corporate America would cheer. And it would boost job creation and competitiveness.

  5. 15 percent value added tax (VAT). Obama should just put it out there—the feds need more revenue as 76 million baby boomers retire, and this is the smartest way to raise it. Every Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country except the United States has a VAT. Time to join the club, at 15 percent, which is lower than most other countries'.

  6. Teachers from the top 15 percent. In the world's top-performing school systems the teachers generally are recruited from near the top of the class. In the United States we recruit from the middle and bottom. "Let's get most of our teachers from the top 15 percent," the president should say.

  7. Lower the voting age to 15. I've said it before and I'll say it again: A movement to lower the voting age would galvanize and empower a generation being given the shaft by current trends. It would become a hook for the press to cover the generational impact of everything from budgets to climate change to college costs.

There! Maybe you can come up with more fifteens at home. But we have enough here to start a movement. Forget 9-9-9. This is 15-15-15-15-15-15-15. Call it the new American agenda: Fifteen to the seventh power!

Seven concrete goals that won't vanish like "winning the future." And if we hit them, America would be vastly better off.

Plus, it's fun. Let the GOP come back with its own number.

Remember the middle-aged guy who put his arm around Dustin Hoffman's shoulder in "The Graduate" and said he had one word for him: "Plastics"?

Well, I've got one number for you, Mr. President. Fifteen.

If anyone's got a better digit to move America forward, I'd like to hear it.