David Brooks / Syndicated columnist
Obama should think big to break the nation's partisan gridlock
Bigger is easier, writes columnist David Brooks. If President Obama just tinkers around the edges with modest proposals, then everybody will be on familiar ground. But if he can expand the current debate — to tax reform, Social Security reform — then, suddenly, everybody is on new ground.
President Barack Obama faces an enormously difficult challenge over the next few weeks.
On the one hand, this moment is ripe for fundamental change. There is a pervasive sense that the nation is at a Sputnik moment when it either rises to face the international competition or it does not. Commissions are churning out sweeping proposals. The economy is strong enough for policymakers to think beyond the immediate crisis but not so strong that it allays the national fear of decline.
On the other hand, just as the popular longing for change is at its strongest, the political barriers preventing change are at their strongest, too. The Democrats in Congress distrust the White House and can barely work with the Republicans. Republicans are not in a mood to compromise and can barely work with the Democrats. Many in both parties are willing to wait until 2013, when their side might have more leverage. Voters are cynical about all of them and want every program cut except the ones they benefit from.
Obama's challenge in the State of the Union address is to give voice to the inchoate longing for change, and to chart a political path through the Washington minefield so voters, not to mention bond markets, have the sense that the country is at least beginning to grapple with its problems.
To do that, the president doesn't have to go out on a limb and embrace specific (and politically suicidal) hard choices. But he probably does have to violate some taboos, on right and left, to give people a sense that everything is now up for discussion.
Then he'll probably have to fence off areas of cooperation from areas of conflict. Over the next months, the parties will fight over health-care repeal and the rest. But while that's going on, it should be possible to build momentum and trust by working on corporate tax reform, individual tax reform, Social Security reform and other things. These issues are hard because they involve taking on powerful special interests. But at this moment in history, that's exactly what voters want to see their leaders doing together.
Most important, the president will probably have to take advantage of the following paradox: Bigger is easier. If he just tinkers around the edges with modest proposals, then everybody will be on familiar ground. But if he can expand the current debate, then, suddenly, everybody is on new ground.
The general approach should be to offer the left something it really craves. Then offer the right something it really craves. Then, once you get them watering at the mouth, tell them they're going to have to bend on the things they don't care about in order to get the things they do.
To get the left excited, Obama might offer an activist growth agenda. This would involve spending more on infrastructure, research and job training — basic things he has always talked about. But it also would mean going further and embracing industrial policy. Smart economists like Dani Rodrik and Jeff Faux have been hatching what they call smart industrial policy proposals. If Obama showed some support for this kind of stuff, he'd generate enormous excitement on the left.
To get the right excited, he needs to offer fundamental welfare reform. So far, most efforts to avert national bankruptcy have involved controlling spending but keeping the basic structure of the safety net intact.
But it should be possible to strengthen the safety net while modernizing some of the Great Society structures. Paul Ryan, a Republican, and Alice Rivlin, a Democrat, have come up with a Medicare reform plan in which new enrollees would receive a fixed contribution from the government, growing a bit faster than inflation. They would apply that money against the cost of health insurance. This would make Medicare a defined contribution program and save hundreds of billions. If Obama said he was open to thinking about this sort of fundamental reform, he'd generate tremendous excitement on the right.
This is the opposite of triangulation. Instead of finding small compromises in the middle, it marries big ideas on the left and right. In a polarized country, it may be easier to push through big change by marrying the left and the right than by relying upon an unfortunately weak vital center.
Moreover, this marriage is intellectually coherent. Joining these initiatives means shifting resources from consumption to production, from current spending to future investment.
Liberals would get dollars for the unemployed in Ohio. Conservatives would cap the growth of government. Bond markets would see credible action. Voters would see a government that can function and a future that looks better than the present.
David Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York Times.