Much as we might wish to believe we as a nation are masters of our own fate, stuff happens. As Monty Python said so eloquently, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” Unexpected events roil societies, but they are also opportunities for great leaders to alter national conversation and, paradoxically, move us forward. When events place you on defense, as they have done to President Obama, the imperative is to change the terms of debate. Reject the existing framework.
In stark contrast to his “Yes, we can” rhetoric, the president now risks letting events render his administration weak and ineffective, bringing back long-repressed memories of the Carter years.
We are going through a patch in which Americans could reasonably conclude that “nothing works.” Against the backdrop of the 2008 failure of Wall Street and our economy, three pressing situations are converging to create the current sense of national impotence. First, private sector job growth, based on the most recent BLS numbers, suffers from such extreme anemia that it seems the employer of last resort, the Census Bureau, soon may not need to do a census—it could merely check the size of its own payroll. Second, the BP oil spill of biblical proportions is horribly reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina and the failed government response to that disaster. Regardless of responsibility, the sense of failure builds every day as we’re barraged with images of tarred beaches, fouled birds, greasy swamps, and billowing plumes of oil. And third, the notion of building a civil society in Afghanistan amid warlords and Taliban and opium fields now feels so remote that Vietnam is beginning to seem a reasonable comparison.
We are mired in an ugly moment when failure dominates the American psyche. The president must fight this. The president must wrest back his presidency by presenting us with an uplifting—and persuasive—vision of transformation.
Here are a few “Yes, we can” responses to get back on offense. On jobs and economic growth, the president should double down. Only economic growth and entitlement reform will control the deficit long term. So create the growth with a meaningful inducement to private sector job growth—a significant tax credit for hiring. Private companies are sitting on cash because of uncertainty, so lower the marginal cost of employment dramatically through the tax code. Couple this with significant aid to state governments, which will otherwise be forced to impose devastating layoffs in education, health care, and infrastructure construction. Then insist on entitlement reform. Only by shifting the true trajectory of Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security spending will we work our way out of this. It is time to raise the retirement age and require means testing for certain benefits. This will not be easy, but it will be the right thing to do. Included in this entitlement reform must be prospective reform of public pension obligations.
The president should try to use the BP fiasco to transform the national energy debate. Scrap the bureaucracy that’s required by a cap-and-trade plan and instead push a carbon tax. Require a massive uptick in the efficiency of new products—from air conditioners to automobiles. Spur rapid development of nuclear power plants to tide us over until true alternative energies are developed. Develop battery systems that can wean us from gasoline-dependent cars, and build the infrastructure to permit charging stations and battery swap stations throughout the nation. That would be a meaningful jobs program.
And finally, President Obama should acknowledge that the Afghan war is failing, that Hamid Karzai’s loyalty is nonexistent, that the local warlords are simply using us for their own purposes, and that the true enemy may not even be there any longer. Terrorists have the clever habit of moving where our ground troops are not deployed. We should get our ground troops out of Afghanistan and take the war to the terrorists through covert operations and sophisticated strikes.
If President Obama doesn’t seize the moment and replace nightly news visuals of suicide bombs in Afghanistan, tarred wildlife, and underwater oil plumes in the gulf, they will become the defining images of his presidency, much as a botched hostage rescue, lines at gas stations, and a cardigan sweater came to define another president who similarly sought to do good things.