The Best Policy

The Speech Obama Should Give

A seven-point plan for saving his presidency.

President Obama

Mr. President—please talk to us! Four long weeks since the midterm elections, and there has been no significant communication from you about your understanding of why the electorate was unhappy—or how you plan to proceed. Do you take the results as an obligation to tack to the middle—to try to compromise with the heretofore “party of no”? Or do you embrace your occasional comment that it is better to be visionary, certain in one’s beliefs, and yet serve one term?

Sure, it’s been a rough four weeks for you: The South Koreans gave us the back of the hand on trade before they beckoned for our strength to protect them from North Korean aggression. The Chinese mocked our trade imbalance efforts at the G-20; virtually everybody—including normally solid allies—was dismissive of the QE-2 effort. Our Afghan talks were going great until we realized we were negotiating with an impostor. Then you needed 12 stitches from an elbow on the home court, and that was before the beating you’re going to take over the WikiLeaks publication of our embarrassing diplomatic cables.

All the more reason to find your voice! Restore our faith that you believe in upsetting the apple cart—not just protecting the comfortable and the status quo.  A crisis is still a terrible thing to waste. Your hesitancy to define how we will use our current crises cedes the agenda—and power—to those who do not share your beliefs.

So here is an outline of some points I would love to hear in a prime-time speech to the nation:

1. As a nation, over the last century, we have won the most fundamental ideological battle of modern history—democracy and capitalism have triumphed over all alternatives—and in doing so we have brought freedom, wealth, and prosperity to ourselves and more of the world than ever thought possible.  This victory has also made the world more competitive, and as a result, the next century will belong to those who harness innovation and creativity in a global economy. That is our mandate, from which we cannot be distracted.

2. That being said, terrorism born of intolerance and fundamentalism threatens all we believe in, and we will be vigilant and unwavering in battling the forces of terrorism—wherever they may be harbored.  Yet our excursion into nation-building in Afghanistan is over. It is a distraction from our effort to combat terror and our mandate to build our own economy.  Terror we will fight—whether in Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, or even embedded in the Pakistani intelligence services.  We will use technology and drones and special forces, yet we will not risk the lives of 100,000 U.S. soldiers to prop up a corrupt Afghan regime in the misguided belief that such an effort is equivalent to fighting terrorism.  The Karzai regime is corrupt and not worth the blood of U.S. soldiers.

3. I am working with congressional leaders to ensure action—before year’s end—on four critical measures: ratification of the New START treaty, repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, extension of only the middle-class tax cuts, and extension of unemployment benefits.  These steps are necessary for our strategic safety, our moral integrity, and our economic well-being.

4. North Korea’s bombings and provocations are understood by the U.S. to be at China’s behest. We will not tolerate aggression against our ally South Korea. Consequently, we will not only proceed with planned military exercises with South Korea, but will also file currency-manipulation charges against China with the WTO. If their manipulation does not stop, we will enact tariffs on Chinese goods that match the magnitude of their currency manipulation.  (Yes, some economists will be upset, but they are the same Wall Street voices and academics who told us that credit-default swaps were good for stability.)

5. I am going to announce a dramatic tax-simplification model that will lower tax rates for the poor and middle class, raise them marginally for the wealthy, eliminate many unneeded taxes, and simultaneously impose a means test for Social Security and Medicare. These steps will assist our economy and restore fiscal stability over a reasonable time frame.

6. I am proposing a carbon tax whose proceeds will be used to reduce the payroll tax and subsidize domestic clean energy.

7. Finally, through a dramatic expansion of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” concept, we will restore our K-12 education to world-class status. We will also develop a higher-education finance system, as proposed by Nobel laureate economists James Tobin and Milton Friedman, and recently suggested again by Robert Reich, that permits students to pay after they graduate based on their earnings.  This opens the doors of college to all—with no concerns about ability to pay or a debt burden afterward.   Education is the most critical component of our future—we will invest in it.

This is an agenda for the next two years. It is an agenda worthy of a great president, which President Obama can be.

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