The incoming President must focus on one target—energy independence—and employ the same discipline he brought to the election battle
Barack Obama's election has impressed the world as few achievements in recent past have and has helped change the way people overseas view the U.S. This President is going to Washington enjoying the support not only of many U.S. citizens but also the good wishes of many citizens of this planet. Indeed, Barack Obama is the closest thing to a truly global leader that the world has ever had.
Of course, this level of support comes with high expectations, and therein lies the true challenge of this Presidency. Barack Obama is expected to continue the bail out of banks, to execute the bailout of the car industry, find a way to bail us out of a failed policy in the Middle East and in Guantánamo, and to bail out both beleaguered states and cities. He is expected to stop the decline of the U.S. as defined by a myriad of constituencies that are trying to control his agenda even before he has a chance to move to Washington.
Obama cannot hope to win reelection in four years if he chooses to undertake all of these bailouts. What the U.S. needs is a buildup. Obama cannot afford to fight defensively on so many fronts. He needs to concentrate on one, employing the same discipline he exhibited during the primaries and the general campaign. He needs to choose a target and organize a campaign behind it. He should expect all to support his campaign and not waste his political capital supporting campaigns conceived and defined by others. Progress toward the target will generate its own momentum.
The Key to Reelection
The reason he needs to do this is because the history of the U.S. Presidency is clear: Those who used their first year in office to define their permanent campaign won reelection. Those who dissipated their energy among many initiatives did not. Jimmy Carter is a clear example of the latter, while Ronald Reagan and even George W. Bush are examples of the former. It is said—and Ronald Reagan never denied it—that when he was awakened by his National Security Adviser about an international crisis during his first year in office, he had one reaction: "Cut taxes." Such was his singlemindedness and commitment to his campaign.
Of all the issues in front of the incoming Administration it is energy independence that is the most promising politically. First, campaigning for energy independence allows for an appeal to national security. The Presidency as pulpit is most effective when it is used to advocate steps advancing U.S. security. This is how the highways were built by President Eisenhower and why President Kennedy told us we had to go to the moon.
Second, energy independence resonates with the U.S. character because it reinforces both U.S. exceptionalism and U.S. patriotism. Furthermore, it allows for the momentum that only popular mobilization can give to a campaign. People can install solar panels; people can make a difference—and a statement—by buying hybrid cars.
However, the best attribute of an energy-independence campaign is neither the national security theme nor the organizational advantage of continuous popular mobilization. It is the latitude that it will create for redefining some key issues. We live in the era of ideas. Those who redefine the issues of the day win in the long run. Let's look at three ways an Obama Administration focused on energy independence could redefine existing problems so they are easier to deal with.
It is in the U.S. interest to frame our stance on Iraq from the perspective of safeguarding our oil supplies for the next five years. Most Americans would support such a shift in our criteria for exiting Iraq away from strictly military considerations (as has been the case to date). Indeed, Americans will understand such a policy even if most are still wondering about the exact purpose of going there in the first place.
Citizens are currently evenly divided on whether the Big Three automakers should be bailed out. However, we can unite behind a program that replaces the fleets used by the federal and state governments with all the hybrids and clean cars that Detroit could produce for the next five years. This would not be a bailout, yet such a plan would allow the Big Three to build up and develop economies of scale faster than their competitors.
We are also divided as a nation on taxes. Indeed, our party system is broadly defined by preferences on taxation. Even so, there seems to be agreement on one thing: the need for a fundamental change in taxation. By taxing neither labor nor capital but carbon, we could both unite on two key issues: energy independence and the need for tax reform.
Green Jobs for the Future
This cannot be achieved overnight, but even with oil trading well below $50, there is no time to waste. And the money raised from tax reform should be used to create green jobs for the future and traditional jobs for those who need them and where they are needed urgently: along our highways, in the downtown, all over our ailing and underfunded civil infrastructure, which includes our national grid.
The temptation just to create jobs will be great given the deteriorating state of the economy. However, mere job creation is easy, and jobs created for the sake of creation can be ephemeral. The jobs need to be created for a purpose. And they need to be sustainable, which means they depend on a specific revenue program that cuts across the existing divide on taxes and does not increase the debt or the budget deficit.
Much will become possible if the U.S. citizens can get behind a purpose, and that is what the concept of a campaign conveys. Many of the things expected of the new Administration will not happen unless Obama does what he does best: subjugate everything to the discipline of an overarching priority. He has proved that he can do it for himself. Now he has to also do it for the entire country.