When I was a young adult, people used to joke that if the political situation got any worse they would simply move to Australia. When I notified a few of my friends that I would be taking a trip to Canberra and then Sydney after the election, several people wrote me and asked: “Are you planning on coming back?”
Who can blame anyone for such wise cracks? Despite feeling relieved that the election is finally over and that the nation has spoken decisively, we are left with addressing now a series of divisive, dispiriting issues. This is not being helped by the fact that the conduct of the campaign was often brutal or unbecoming. In addition, too much money was spent and there was little debate about how to tackle the nation’s problems. The thrust of the election for both sides was all tactical, with the principle aim of proving the unsuitability of the other candidate. In the end, I believe the voters selected the right candidate. But ultimately, the vote was driven more by fear and contempt (for the other party) than an endorsement of a coherent national direction.
This offers both an opportunity and a danger for President Obama. If he doesn’t set an entirely new tone and give Republicans a way to “save face,” his second term could be imperiled – and this could have a lasting impact on his legacy. His alternative is to seize some obvious openings.
Here are several thoughts on what Obama should do:
1. Save political capital for when it really counts.
History has shown that second presidential terms can be perilous. That’s why Obama must be careful to pick the right fights. The “trial balloon” of Susan Rice for Secretary of State, for instance, should not be one of the places Obama spends his hard-earned political capital. He must preserve it for tackling one or possibly two big transformational challenges.
2. Bind the wounds.
The president needs to turn the atmosphere created by the negative presidential campaign into something positive: a national approach to our long-term challenges. Simply trying to empower the middle class is not an overarching strategy. With another war winding down, global economic shifts underway, and debt and recovery challenges in the U.S., the country needs the president to articulate a broad vision for the nation – not just a dissertation on tax policy or the government’s relationship with its citizens.
As soon as is feasible, the president would do well to travel to one or more of the Red States. Though Obama lost the Midwest and the South, he may have more in common with the residents of those rural areas than his handlers might think. Of strong Midwest stock himself, Obama has the opportunity to demonstrate some political bravery by wandering into seemingly hostile territory. He has been the epitome of a family man; this can help provide some useful touchstones. He can also make the case to those in conservative small-town America that, like their urban equivalents, he understands they suffer from limited opportunity and wants to do something about that.
Now is also the time to start talking with the business community. During the election, big-moneyed interests used the GOP’s social conservatives and working ranks to try and ratify arrangements that were primarily for their benefit. But Donald Trump and Jack Welch, for instance, are hardly icons of conservative lifestyles or values. Many of the unfounded conspiracy theories they advanced during the campaign were aimed at rallying those “impressionable others” into voting against their own economic interests. While this may be a sad and cynical turn in our electoral politics, they do not represent the views of all of America’s wealthy. More should be done to gather their ideas for moving forward. Raising taxes will never be enough. The future of everything, from economic prosperity to reducing income inequality, cannot be achieved without an economy that is growing. For this, it will require all hands on deck.
3. Give Americans a new way to think about the economy.
The president and the country will be helped considerably if the current fiscal crisis is put into context. It is more important than ever for us to understand the nature of our national strategic challenges and to see tax and revenue policy as only a means to an end. Finding the right balance of income and expenses is not just a way to avert a debt crisis; it is one of a number of measures that will assure our national strength and security. Under such a banner all Americans would be willing, as they have been in the past, to sacrifice something for our country’s national security.
On my recent visit to Australia I could easily see why people, in jest or otherwise, would hold out the island continent as an alternative to home. The country is beautiful and the Aussies are fun and unpretentious. These are tempting attributes for any modern society.
That’s why we cannot allow the United States to become a nation of “farnarklers,” a word they use Down Under for talkers who never get anything done. We, who live in the United States, need President Obama to lead and inspire us all – so we can ensure that America will remain the envy of the world.