A large majority of us want Obama to succeed, including many who voted against him. We need him to succeed, because we’re in trouble.
First, the administration needs a thorough restaffing. With one exception, the president’s heavy reliance on former elected officials as Cabinet officers in the first term did not work out well. Ken Salazar of Interior and Ray LaHood of Transportation, for example, are wonderful people, but they didn’t get a whole lot done.
And there is a lot to do. It’s clear that the executive branch will have to do a good chunk of it without much help from a divided Congress. So this calls for broad-gauged, tough leaders with executive experience to manage the transition to a new health insurance structure, mount a national program of capital investment in infrastructure, continue the good work started in education, and get us moving on reducing carbon emissions and creating jobs by investing in energy efficiency.
The one bright exception among the previous elected officials serving in the first term was Hillary Rodham Clinton. Filling the former senator’s shoes will require someone who can deal in levelheaded terms with China; bring shrewdness, restraint and toughness all at once to dealing with Iran; move us forward on international global warming agreements; and strengthen our ties with Europe, which have been neglected. This will be the single most important appointment the president makes, and I hope he will take his time and get this one right, not lunge and appoint some of those in the front row who are waving their hands.
Second, we need to frame and begin implementing an integrated, low-carbon, pro-growth national energy policy. If the feds help, the states can lead the way in a far-reaching energy efficiency retrofit program and modernize the electricity grid to make us more competitive globally. And the president can, by executive action, change immediately the outdated regulations that block use of alternative fuels that can compete with gasoline and prevent us from retrofitting the existing vehicle fleet to use cheaper, cleaner, American-produced fuels. The price of petroleum is high and will go higher, and has become a heavy tax on poor and middle-income families who can’t cut back their driving without threatening their jobs.
But at the top of the agenda is work on a serious plan to balance the federal budget. By definition, such a plan will avert our tumbling over the fiscal cliff. That means some tough cuts, including defense, but also adding a capital infrastructure program to generate new jobs and economic growth at the same time we are taking in our belts. Most of us understand that a realistic plan must include some tax increases. The president should draw up the plan with advice from business leaders and thoughtful Republicans and then go out and campaign for it. It will not pass on the first shot. But we citizens understand we’re in trouble. If the president keeps the issue in front of us and relentlessly exposes the sham arguments the right wing puts up that keep us from balancing the budget, we can get there.
To do this, Obama will have to be a lot more effective than he has been in battling the retrograde right-wingers. He will have to get angry. And he will have to take a page from FDR’s book and learn how to use the ultimate weapon against them: ridicule. He will have to explain, in vivid terms that the average citizen can understand, that the right-wing plan to deal with a sinking ship boils down to drilling more holes.
The stakes are enormous. The president will set the tone and the odds of success or lack thereof for his second term in the first months of the new year. We need to support him as he changes his game plan.Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State, is a member of the State Budget Crisis Task Force. He wrote this for Newsday.