What Obama should do now
The Washington Post, January 8, 2014
A new year is a time for reflection, so let's take stock of where progressive ambition stands. The president's health-care plan obviously has to be further implemented in ways that fulfill its promise and erase memories of its awful launch. And with luck, President Obama may get some version of immigration reform and even a modest (if inadequate) hike in the minimum wage.
But that's it. So long as Republicans hold the House and can filibuster most things in the Senate, there is no chance for Obama to do anything meaningful about upward mobility, extreme inequality and economic security. It's virtually certain this political equation will still spell deadlock after the midterm elections in November.
When it comes to these core economic challenges, this leaves the president with two basic options as he looks to his final three years.
The default option—call it the Make Believe Option, which most conventional politicians would choose—would be to push symbolic measures (like college "report cards") and rely on small executive actions to signal his values, pretending that these baby steps amount to something bigger. When he leaves office, Obama could say he talked about the right things, and his approval ratings will perhaps have rebounded, but almost nothing he cares about will have changed. Public attitudes on how best to tackle our economic challenges will remain divided and ambivalent.
The unconventional choice would be to respond to today's gridlock by reimagining the role of presidential leadership. Under this option—call it the Consensus Project—Obama's objective would be to use the next three years to change the climate of opinion so that the odds of his successors being able to enact meaningful problem-solving reforms rises substantially. The Consensus Project would recognize what Obama's hero Lincoln understood: Nothing can be done without public opinion, and everything with it. Given the stasis in Washington, the only intelligent use of Obama's remaining time is to seek to move public opinion on key issues the country needs to address after he's gone.
In practice, this would mean a massive, three-year public education campaign that Obama would personally lead. The president would acknowledge that divided power means the nation won't do the things he thinks are important while he's at the helm. Political advisers will say this signals fatal weakness. Obama would know it shows integrity that the public will respect as strength.
Rather than beat his head against a Republican wall, Obama would instead lead a set of vital national conversations on our chief economic challenges and promising solutions. Every moment on his schedule related to domestic issues (beyond the rollout of Obamacare, immigration and the minimum wage) would be in service of this educational campaign. Because of its unique ability to generate media attention, the modern presidency, if used in fresh, sustained ways, can be the most powerful platform ever devised from which to teach and persuade.
Skeptics will scoff (I can hear their laughter already), but under this approach Obama would run the domestic presidency like a livelier version of PBS educational programming. We've had plenty of presidents who were essentially actors; this would be our first president as TV host.
What might this look like? For each major issue area, Obama would appoint a bipartisan task force of civic, business, media and nonprofit leaders to organize regional events and prepare accessible briefing materials for citizens. He'd also recruit the nation's most talented television producers in an "Ask not what your country can do for you" spirit.
He wouldn't just preach to the converted—he can't, since his goal would be to create 60-plus percent support for policies that future presidents and Congresses might enact. He'd thus do televised town hall events in tea party districts and engage continually with leaders and citizens of every stripe.
Think of Obama's televised dialogue in the lion's den of the GOP caucus in January 2010 or the health-care summit with Republicans the next month, only on steroids. And with many more groups and diverse citizens. With first-rate production values. For 30 months.
In short, Obama would model the engaged civic conversation that's missing as we struggle to find a new consensus on the role of the public and private sector in meeting the challenges of a global, high-tech age. His effort would recognize that the only way to reach this new consensus is through a better shared understanding of the world we now confront.
Obama's agenda (and style) would become the benchmark of seriousness for the 2016 presidential campaign, against which the plans and behavior of both Republican and Democratic aspirants would be judged. When it's clear that Obama is trying no longer to pass new laws but rather to educate and to change people's minds about what the country needs to do, he'd regain the kind of respect that voters typically reserve for leaders who say they'll serve one term in office.
Here are three areas the president could focus this campaign on:
There could be more, but you get the idea. (It's also worth focusing on a short set of issues to make this a project Americans can digest.) Obama's final campaign would use clear metrics to track the movement of public opinion on the nature of these problems, and on support for real (as opposed to make-believe) solutions.
Something like this Consensus Project is a better fit for the president's personality and talents than the horse-trading and arm-twisting that has never been his strength. It would return the president in authentic ways to the "beyond red and blue" spirit that made Obama's debut on the national stage so electrifying—a spirit that has proven impossible to sustain, and even naive to embrace, in a petty, partisan and power-mad capitol.
Most advisers would tell the president this idea is crazy, of course. And the media wouldn't have a clue what to make of it at first.
But Mr. President, ask yourself this: If your only other choice on our biggest economic challenges is ultimately make-believe, why not spend three years on a more ambitious quest to make altered public attitudes your ultimate legacy?