The Reckoning

Are You Better Off Four Years From Now? 

obama jobs act

US President Barack Obama holds a copy of his proposed American Jobs Act back in 2011. How about one for the future of the country, too? 

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The real question voters should be asking themselves right now as they wade through the muck of the 2012 presidential election has less to do with 2008 or even 2012 than it does with 2016.

At a time when the U.S. position in the world is in flux—largely due to the fact that we cannot afford to keep the many foreign and domestic promises we’ve made over the past century—which one of these men appears to have a plan that puts us on a sustainable path in the decades to come?

Many of you will now expect a straw man to be erected and torn down, revealing the Amazing Obama as the clear choice in this regard. Would that it were so; in fact, both are failing us.

Start on the right: The Romney brain trust argues that because Mitt Believes in America, he believes that doubling down on defense and intelligence activity and an aggressive U.S. posture in the world is in the best interest of the country.

He also believes that the only things preventing America from enjoying the fruits of a second industrial revolution are government regulation and an unwillingness to implement eviscerating cuts to government.

If only he could spend copiously on weapons, attack Iran’s nuclear program, encircle China with aircraft carriers, eliminate regulation of the private sector, and effect massive cuts to government spending, the USA would grow at 5 percent or more a year. 

Mitt believes in America so much, in fact, that he thinks the American economy in its current enfeebled condition could survive his spending cuts—which amount to at least 4 percent of GDP (some put the figure much higher)—without a wrenching recession, too.

Now, look at Obama’s camp, where the argument appears more chastened than it did in 2008, and that is a good thing, but just as devoid of detail.

Abroad, Obama argues that the U.S. should temper its involvement in the world, deputizing NATO or other allies to act when possible, and using “stand-off” tactics like drones and special forces to keep the worst at bay. That, the left notes, leaves room to pare back defense spending and avoid provoking China even as the shift form the Middle East and Europe toward the Pacific Rim continues. So far, I’m down with that.

Domestically, he keeps arguing that entitlement and tax reform is a priority. But here’s where it falls apart. For whatever reason—lack of political courage, or perhaps just a healthy sense of political timing—there appears to be no particular blueprint for closing the gap between government entitlement spending and reality. This isn’t a value judgment on those entitlements; government should provide a safety net and retirement benefits to those who paid in all their lives, as well as those whose lives took turns that left them unable to cope. But gravity exists, and it is exerting its pull on the U.S. economy. The uncertainty that floats above everything economic these days is retarding growth, and much of that is the result of politicians—Obama included—who just will not commit to making hard choices.

As a result, well-meaning people who would like to support Obama instead waver, worrying (for good reason) about the clearly unsustainable path the country is on. They wonder, these swing voters, is he a politically savvy ice man, or the ultimate empty cynic? Does he have a plan, and if so, where is it?

Richard Nixon, remember, campaigned in 1968 saying he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. After being elected, the plan turned out to be heavy on B-52s and light on endings.

Does Obama have a secret long-term plan to tackle America’s crushing national debt, one that preserves his party’s traditions but also faces up to the new realities that face his country globally? Or is his plan, like Nixon’s, not a plan at all, just a prescription for making things worse?

It’s all very disappointing. Of the two rival approaches that emerge from the sudsy spin cycle of both campaigns, one is mad on its face and the other is maddeningly devoid of detail. Romney would, best I can guess, govern like a small government Cold War conservative—think George H.W. Bush with a better tan and nastier advisers.

But the United States during the Cold War—even the late, George H.W. Bush Cold War—was the planet’s only top-tier economic power and about to inherit the Earth in the form of the collapse of its only rival, the Soviet Union. This is not the world we face today. We’ve got competition now that requires more than bravado and speeches at the Berlin Wall.

Today, failing to invest in research, education, and infrastructure is akin to surrendering the rest of the century to that competition. And acting arrogantly on the world stage will only help the worst elements in rival nations to make the case that America is an enemy that, ultimately, needs to be equaled militarily as well as economically. Right now, most nations are happy to let us have our military advantages. Thinking from Beijing’s perspective, for instance,  it costs far too much to challenge U.S. military power directly, and for all our annoying miscalculations in Iraq and elsewhere, China knows the U.S. military serves a useful purpose in keeping trade routes open and Japan’s military instincts under wraps. For a guy proud of his management chops, Romney’s posture here amounts to a very bad business plan.

All this might be highlighted by the publication of a detailed, spin-free, long-term plan by Obama right now that charts a middle way through the budget-scything instincts of the GOP and the actual needs of history’s largest-ever economic power. The lack of seriousness in the Romney camp’s approach should be easy to underscore.

Perhaps Obama is waiting until his lead approaches double digits to show his hand? Perhaps he wants to wait for another lame duck period and re-engage in the “grand bargain” talks that failed so spectacularly in 2010, in spite of his willingness to go far beyond halfway.


But I worry he has no plan, secret or otherwise. And as much as I’d like to say, “That’s still better than Romney’s plan,” it’s not much better—certainly not worthy of a guy asking the country to trust him with its future.

Romney may be hiding awful things in his past tax returns, but he’s not the president. Obama is the president, and politically risky or not, I think it’s his duty to chart a clear path forward to 2016 and beyond. Will he revive the Simpson Bowles deficit plan? Is he willing to cap Social Security benefits for those over a certain income level? Will he trade horses on Medicare and Medicaid spending to ensure their most important functions—coverage of catastrophic illnesses—are salvaged? Will he put the kind of energy into remaking the tax system that he devoted to health reforms? 

So far, it’s all spin and slogans, and no serious solutions. Until those questions and others have solid answers, he’s only the least bad option.