Change I can dream about
I have dreams. I may seem like a boring pundit whose most exotic fantasies involve GAO reports, but deep down I have dreams. And right now I’m dreaming of the successful presidency this country needs.
I’m dreaming of an administration led by Barack Obama, but which stretches beyond the normal Democratic base. It makes time for moderate voters, suburban voters, rural voters and even people who voted for the other guy.
The administration of my dreams understands where the country is today. Its members know that, as Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center put it on "The NewsHour," "This was an election where the middle asserted itself." There was "no sign" of a "movement to the left."
Only 17 percent of Americans trust the government to do the right thing most or all of the time, according to an October New York Times/CBS News poll. So the members of my dream Obama administration understand that they cannot impose an ideological program the country does not accept. New presidents in 1932 and 1964 could presuppose a basic level of trust in government. But today, as Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution observes, the new president is going to have to build that trust deliberately and step by step.
Walking into the Obama White House of my dreams will be like walking into the Gates Foundation. The people there will be ostentatiously pragmatic and data-driven. They’ll hunt good ideas like venture capitalists. They’ll have no faith in all-powerful bureaucrats issuing edicts from the center. Instead, they’ll use that language of decentralized networks, bottom-up reform and scalable innovation.
They will actually believe in that stuff Obama says about postpartisan politics. That means there won’t just be a few token liberal Republicans in marginal jobs. There will be people like Robert Gates at Defense and Ray LaHood, Stuart Butler, Diane Ravitch, Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Jim Talent at other important jobs.
The Obama administration of my dreams will insist that congressional Democrats reinstate bipartisan conference committees. They’ll invite GOP leaders to the White House for real meetings and then re-invite them, even if they give hostile news conferences on the White House driveway.
They’ll do things conservatives disagree with, but they’ll also show that they’re not toadies of the liberal interest groups. They’ll insist on merit pay and preserving No Child Left Behind’s accountability standards, no matter what the teachers’ unions say. They’ll postpone contentious fights on things like card check legislation.
Most of all, they’ll take significant action on the problems facing the country without causing a mass freak-out among voters to the right of Nancy Pelosi.
They’ll do this by explaining to the American people that there are two stages to their domestic policy thinking, the short-term and the long-term.
The short-term strategy will have two goals: to mitigate the pain of the recession and the change the culture of Washington. The first step will be to complete the round of stimulus packages that are sure to come.
Then they’ll take up two ideas that already have bipartisan support: middle-class tax relief and an energy package. The current economic and energy crisis is an opportunity to do what was not done in similar circumstances in 1974 — transform this country’s energy supply. A comprehensive bill — encompassing everything from off-shore drilling to green technologies — would stimulate the economy and nurture new political coalitions.
When the recession shows signs of bottoming out, then my dream administration would begin phase two. The long-term strategy would be about restoring fiscal balances and reforming fundamental institutions.
By this time, the budget deficit could be zooming past $1.5 trillion a year. The U.S. will be borrowing oceans of money from abroad. My dream administration will show that it understands that the remedy for a culture of debt is not more long-term debt. It will side with those who worry that long-term deficits could lead to ruinous interest-rate hikes.
My dream administration will announce a Budget Rebalancing Initiative. Somebody like Rep. Jim Cooper would go through the budget and take out the programs and tax expenditures that don’t work. "If we have no spending cuts, then we’re saying government is perfect. Nobody believes that," Cooper says.
Having built bipartisan relationships, having shown some fiscal toughness, having seen the economy through the tough times, my dream administration will then be in a position to take up health care reform, tax reform, education reform and a long-range infrastructure initiative. These reforms may have to start slow and on the cheap. But real reform would be imaginable since politics as we know it would be transformed.
Is it all just a dream? I hope not. In any case, please be quiet and let me have my moment.
David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.