Three things President Obama should (and could) do immediately
After what amounted to nine full months of campaigning, and billions of dollars of spending, we are back were we started. Don’t get me wrong. The process of reaffirming peoples’ choices is a key part of democracy. But in terms of the challenges facing the US economy we have had nearly a year of stasis. A tepid recovery continues. External influences remain negative (European Debt, slowing Asian growth, political instability in the Middle-East). The government of the United States remains divided.
However, there are three things that a newly-“mandated” President Obama should do, almost immediately. Even with the continued divided government, these things are attainable.
1. ACCELERATE WITHDRAWAL FROM AFGHANISTAN
It may not be fair on the average citizen of Afghanistan, but it is time for the military involvement in that country to end. Not just the overt army presence. But the whole phalanx of contractors and pseudo-armies too. The current withdrawal plan sees US forces leaving by the end of 2014. That should be accelerated to “as soon as logistically possible”. The Afghan invasion was the right thing to do when it started. It was (stupidly) derailed by diverting attention to Iraq. That egg cannot be unscrambled. It is time to go, and as quickly as possible. We will have to see where the pieces fall thereafter and react tactically.
2. DELIVER A COMPREHENSIVE AND ROBUST SERIES OF INVESTMENTS & INITIATIVES AROUND DOMESTIC ENERGY PRODUCTION
This may really piss off much of Obama’s base. But he doesn’t need their votes now and he has already delivered the “you may not agree with everything I do, but in general I am headed the right way” speech. As I described in my piece on manufacturing jobs, domestic energy represents a very real opportunity to create jobs, reduce dependence on foreign imports of hydrocarbons and help the balance of payments. This was the headline initiative in Romney’s economic plan. He was more likely to adopt a “deregulate and be damned” approach. Obama can and should craft a more complete domestic energy policy which can include investments in green alternatives as well as more conventional initiatives such as increased permitting, use of federal lands and pipelines. Yes, the benefits may be relatively shorter term (a couple of decades) and there will be some environmental impacts. But it has to be done and it can be done.
3. ADOPT SIMPSON-BOWLES AS THE BASIS FOR A COMPREHENSIVE GRAND BARGAIN ON DEBT, TAXES & ENTITLEMENT REFORM
One of the more mystifying aspects of the President’s first term in office was the fact that, having appointed a bipartisan debt commission, he completely ignored their output. Whether this was a case of wrong-headedness, or some Machiavellian part of the plan to win re-election, is impossible to judge at this point. One of the things we can look for from President Obama is a little humility, however “pretend” it is. “One of things I wish I had done differently in my first term is to have made more progress on fiscal issues using Simpson/Bowles as a starting point.” There. Easy said. A couple of news cycles of criticism. But the game is changed. Fiscal reform should encompass comprehensive tax reform (loopholes closed, rates lowered in general, some “investment” rates raised), simple decisions on social security reform as well budget envelopes for other government programs. Despite drawing down involvement in Afghanistan more quickly it is unlikely to see large defense cuts. Republicans love the “strong military” except for their more libertarian wing. Democrats secretly love the “hidden stimulus and redistributive” aspects of the military-industrial complex that they like to pretend to rage against. That’s why the Army is getting a load of new tanks that it no longer needs nor wants.
There may be other bipartisan-esque things that President Obama can start on. For example, the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans are being forced to address the fact that they are seen as the Party of anti-immigrants – if for no other reason than they will never win another national election if they keep beating up on Latinos and women. But the three listed above are surely the most important.
A note of caution. The President’s reform of healthcare is the classic example of how a “camel is a horse designed by a committee”. The corrupting influence of money on US politics is often mentioned in passing (both inside and outside the United States) but the depth of it has to be seen to be believed. It’s not just the tanks mentioned above. It is everywhere. On healthcare, for example, the country still is not addressing the fact that the USA spends over twice as much (per capita, or as %age of GDP) on healthcare than other modern Western democracies. Not 5% more. Not 35% more. Twice as much. Outcomes for the average person are no better than they are in the UK or Germany. Comprehensive healthcare reform was far from it. It was tinkering with an already broken model. The healthcare industry is one stakeholder that is not complaining about Obamacare – it gave them customers who must buy what they are making, after all. It discounted the Universal single-payer option and caved on the issue of driving down the prices of pharmaceuticals. No wonder the insurance and drugs companies are not part of the effort fighting Obamacare in court or on state ballots.
Churchill said that the people of the United States can be relied upon to the right thing, “as soon as they have exhausted all other possibilities”. Let’s hope that President Obama can live up to that faint praise, now that he has been given a second chance.