Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Opinion

Column: Losing American hearts and minds

Robert Kagan recently wrote that, foreign policy decision by foreign policy decision, President Barack Obama has given Americans what they say they want. But the result hasn't made them proud of America or of their president.

The same phenomenon may explain the disappointment in Obama's domestic record.

Case by case overseas, Kagan suggested, Americans agree with Obama's calls: pull out of Iraq, wind down in Afghanistan, steer clear of Syria. But the emerging picture of an America in retreat, and a leader half-heartedly committed to promoting liberty, is not what they were looking for.

At home, the fateful moment came in 2011 when Obama cold-shouldered the bipartisan panel he had appointed to right the nation's finances for the long term. That, too, was a decision in keeping with the polls.

The Simpson-Bowles commission had called for higher taxes and slower growth in Medicare and Social Security spending. Neither is popular. Had Obama endorsed the recommendations, Democrats would have forfeited their trustiest campaign weapon: warning oldsters that Republicans want to take away their retirement benefits and health care. Obama's re-election in 2012 seems to vindicate his judgment.

But at what cost? He defeated a weak opponent by tearing him down as a job-killing plutocrat. He didn't come close to regaining the control of the House that he lost in 2010. His second-term agenda is meager.

Now he stands in danger of losing the Senate, too. His weapon to ward that off is a poll-tested and cynical campaign against Republicans' "war on women" — cynical because it overstates the wage gap between men and women, oversimplifies the cause of the problem that does exist and proposes an ostensible solution that wouldn't reach the true causes.

Imagine instead that Obama had embraced the bipartisanship of Simpson-Bowles and tried to steer through Congress a package that made the tax system fairer and solved the nation's long-term debt problem. He might have empowered Republicans in Congress — the Roy Blunts and Bob Corkers — who want to work with Democrats and get things done.

The effect on the Democratic Party would have been even more liberating. Instead of chaining themselves to 20th-century arguments and interest groups, Democrats could have begun to shape — and realistically promise to pay for — a 21st-century progressive program focusing on early education and other avenues to opportunity. They could have resources for family policies that really would help address the wage gap.

Instead of a partisan president on the defensive with slipping poll numbers, Obama could have been, as he had once promised, the president of both red and blue America.

Some (including Obama) argue that his refusal to embrace the commission he had appointed reflected simple political realism. One version of this argument is that his endorsement would have been poisonous, given GOP animosity toward him; by staying aloof he enhanced the chances of a fiscal deal. We know how that panned out.

Another version is that it would have been hopeless; he had no serious Republican partner and so no chance of muscling reform through Congress. We'll never know whether that is true; we can be fairly sure, in this season of LBJ nostalgia, that other presidents would have given it more of a try.

Others would argue that Obama was right to steer clear of the "austerity" of Simpson-Bowles. But the commission was never about austerity; it recommended and won Republican support for a higher level of government spending than Democratic or Republican budgeteers have proposed since.

What it was, rather, was an acknowledgment that in an aging society, some government spending that has been put on autopilot has to be re-examined so that other priorities — national defense, national parks, colleges, railroads, Head Start — can get their due, and that they all have to be paid for. These were the hard choices that Obama promised, as a candidate in 2008, to face.

He called them hard choices for a reason: One by one, each decision stirs opposition. Public opinion surveys, and political advisers, sound the alarm. "Saving" Social Security, like staying aloof from Syria, polls well.

Recently, in rallying allies to help Ukraine, Obama has shown the kind of leadership abroad that Americans expect of their president. He could still do the same at home. With nearly three years left in his presidency, he is a lame duck only if he chooses to be.

© 2014 Washington Post

Comments
Editorial: They value guns, not kids

Editorial: They value guns, not kids

They value guns over kidsSix days after 17 were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High by a teen-ager firing an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, the Florida House refused to even debate a bill banning the sale of assault weapons. The vote, 71 to 36, wasn...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Editorial: Listen to Marjory Stoneman Douglas students demanding change

Editorial: Listen to Marjory Stoneman Douglas students demanding change

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are traveling to the state capital today and declaring "never again.íí A prominent Florida Republican fundraiser vows he wonít raise another nickel until his party approves new gun controls. Across F...
Published: 02/19/18

Editorial: No more doubt about Russian meddling in election

The latest indictment by the Justice Department special counsel, Robert Mueller, refutes President Donald Trumpís claims that Russian interference in the 2016 election was a Democratic hoax. The indictment details the lengths Russian conspirators too...
Published: 02/19/18

Another voice: Tips should belong to workers, not their bosses

The Trump administration is under fire for proposing a Labor Department regulation that could result in hotel and restaurant employers dipping into the tips customers leave for their employees, depriving the nationís 14 million hard-working restauran...
Published: 02/18/18
Updated: 02/20/18
Editorial: Trumpís rising deficits and misplaced priorities

Editorial: Trumpís rising deficits and misplaced priorities

Itís not popular in Washington or virtually anywhere else these days to express concern about the rising federal deficit. Congressional Republicans who used to be deficit hawks first voted to cut taxes by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, then rais...
Published: 02/17/18
Editorial: Buckhorn should not appeal verdict in firefighterís case

Editorial: Buckhorn should not appeal verdict in firefighterís case

The city of Tampa should have taken Tanja Vidovic seriously from the start when the Tampa firefighter complained about her treatment in the workplace. Now that a jury and judge have spoken, itís time for City Hall to cut its losses, learn from its mi...
Published: 02/15/18
Updated: 02/16/18
Editorial: CareerSource troubles mount as public trust drops

Editorial: CareerSource troubles mount as public trust drops

The dark cloud enveloping Tampa Bayís job placement centers keeps growing. There are accusations of forged documents, evidence of nepotism and concerns about grossly inflated performance numbers that could be tied to receiving more public money and b...
Published: 02/15/18
Updated: 02/16/18
Editorials: Prayers and platitudes after shootings arenít enough

Editorials: Prayers and platitudes after shootings arenít enough

Even before the victims of another mass shooting at another public school were identified, Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, state legislators and members of Congress rushed to South Florida or to social media to offer their thoughts and p...
Published: 02/15/18
Editorial: DCF review should get to the bottom of Hillsborough foster care issues

Editorial: DCF review should get to the bottom of Hillsborough foster care issues

The Florida Department of Children and Families is right to call for a timely and "comprehensive" review of Hillsborough Countyís foster care system. Though the probe is a reaction to a recent case involving a child who was left unattended, the revie...
Published: 02/14/18

A Washington Post editorial: Modernize 911 calling before it becomes an emergency

This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the first 911 emergency call placed in the United States. Since then, uncounted lives have been saved and people helped. It has been a great accomplishment of government.But even as an estimated 240 million 9...
Published: 02/13/18
Updated: 02/14/18