The Simpson-Bowles report wasn't just a policy document. For a few months, it expanded the national debate. Everybody seemed to realize that the country was beset by large challenges that could no longer be neglected: soaring debt, lagging growth, wage stagnation, family breakdown, political dysfunction.
Suddenly, there was a sense of urgency. There were grand plans coming from all directions.
A bipartisan group of 65 senators gathered to think about government afresh. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation asked six think tanks from across the political spectrum to offer fiscal solutions. The proposals teemed with big ideas: fundamental tax reform that would simplify the code and boost growth; fundamental entitlement reform to restrain cost; doubling spending on science, pre-K education and adult retraining; taxing fossil fuels to spur innovation; shifting from a consumption-led to an investment-led economy.
It's sad to compare that era of bigness to the medium-sized policy morsels that President Barack Obama put in his State of the Union address. He had some big themes in the speech, but the policies were mere appetizers. The Republicans absurdly call Obama a European socialist on the stump, but the Obama we saw Tuesday night was a liberal incrementalist.
There was nothing big, like tax reform or entitlement reform. There was no comprehensive effort to restore trust in government by sweeping away the tax credits and special-interest schemes that entangle Washington. Ninety percent of American workers work in the service economy, but Obama spoke mostly about manufacturing.
Instead, there were a series of modest proposals that poll well. In that sense, it was the Democratic version of Newt Gingrich's original "Contract With America" - a series of medium-size ideas with 80 percent approval ratings.
Some of Obama's ideas are outstanding. Presidential nominees should get an up-or-down vote within 90 days. We should connect community colleges more closely with labor markets. We should raise the income tax rates for millionaires back to Clinton-era levels. We should responsibly promote fracking to develop natural gas.
Some of the ideas were lamentable. Instead of simplifying the tax code, Obama would muddy it up with more tax loopholes for corporations as long as they conformed to this or that industrial policy.
Some of the ideas were just inexplicable. Is the government really going to defund Ivy League science labs if Ivy League colleges raise their tuitions?
But the core point is that these policies are incremental, not transformational. You could pass them all and the country might be slightly better off or slightly worse off, but it wouldn't be on a different trajectory.
It's odd that an administration that once wanted to do everything all at once now should be so gradualist. Maybe its members were scarred by the traumas of health care and the 2010 election. Maybe they just want to win the election, so every policy has to be politically easy instead of politically challenging.
Maybe the president's aides believe that most of our problems are overhyped. I have heard them hint that in dozens of interviews. To balance the budget, we only need to bend revenues and taxes a bit. To compete with China, we only need to shift the playing field a bit.
Maybe the president's cautious tendencies are just coming out.
In normal times, that sober, incremental approach would be admirable. In normal times, the best sort of change is gradual, flexible and constant. But these are not normal times. This is not Clinton's second term, or Eisenhower's. The fiscal train wreck is coming. The current U.S. growth model is insufficient. The American family and the American political system are cracking up.
Legislatively, the president has to build a center-left governing majority that can overwhelm those Republicans who will never support him. That can be done only with ground-shifting policies. Politically, the president has to resonate with voters who feel the country is on the wrong track. Prudentially, the president has to prepare for the likelihood that the economy is going to hit another rough patch this year - if Greece leaves the euro or if the French banks implode or if the Iranian crisis comes to a head. If any of that happens, the desire for profound change would be overwhelming and the candidate with a few carefully targeted tax credits would get blown away.
This election is about averting national decline. The president is making a mistake in ceding the size advantage to the Republicans. The Republicans at least speak with epic alarm about the nation's problems. They are unified behind big tax and welfare state reforms that would purge Washington and shake things up.
The president is making a mistake in running a Sunset Boulevard campaign: I am big; it's my presidency that got small.
© 2012 New York Times News Service