President Obama is hitting the campaign trail for Democratic candidates, and his message is emerging, both from his recent speeches and from the talking points of his chief advisers. I'd summarize the message as this: "Do you want to go with the Republicans and their unmodified, failed policies of the past, or do you want to move forwards?"
Some have criticized Obama and his administration for lacking an overall theme. This one, I think, is the right message for him and his party, for the foreseeable future. The facts--as regards the condemnation of the Republicans' failed approach and the lack of any change in it--are all on his side. The political strategy will appeal to the younger generation, which is the way to re-establish the Democrats as the dominant party for the decades to come.
Some criticize this new theme as one that won't work in 2010's midterm elections, for which the overriding concern will be the economy--primarily, unemployment; and secondarily, the economic prospects for growth (probably best measured by the stock market). The criticism may be accurate: the economy will be largely what it is now, and the alternative--claims that it the economy has improved--will certainly ring hollow.
There are still economic initiatives to help the recovery which the Obama administration can and should champion, but those are mostly to try to free up the piles of capital and cash that our financial instiutions and industrial companies are sitting upon, not new spending inititatives (there's no political support for the latter). These economic initiatives may well be acceptable to both parties, and thus are not really a platform for political battle; Republicans' failure to back things like tax credits for investment targeting new jobs, or for accelerated deprectiation on new investment, would be out of character and would backfire badly, and I don't expect such obstinacy.
A painful midterm election has been indicated for a long time, and the focus should be to retain control of both Houses of congress, even if narrowly, minimize losses in statehouses, and prevent the unraveling of the administration before the 2012 elections, which will be much more critical in the long term.
Making It Stick
Having the right message for an overall theme of governance is just words, though, if the policies don't fit. It is in this area that I think Obama's administration can improve.
An in-house policy review across every area is what is needed: Does our policy fit the message, that Democrats are the ones looking to bring a better future? Here are a few examples I think they would identify, and could correct:
o Long-term reduction in debt levels: The Republicans will pull their support from supposedly "bipartisan" commissions if they see they are being played. They want political cover for reductions in costly services; Democrats want cover for tax increases. The Republicans seem to expect they won't get what they want out of it and won't put up with just the Democrats' portion of the debt-reduction agenda.
I say, put out both sides of the agenda, and don't wait for the political consensus to form or to fall apart. If increasing the retirement age for Social Security will save the program forever, then phase it in. Why resist something that makes perfect sense? As for tax policy, take the good ideas which bring in new revenue, and make sure the policy fits Democratic ideas: restore the estate tax, raise corporate tax (yes!) and high-end income tax rates, reduce subsidies for fossil fuel exploration.
Finally, the most pernicious, and the most problematic, debt issue for the future is the cost of health care mandates that are not fully funded by revenues. The healthcare bill that passed didn't really change that--costs may be reduced somewhat by covering more people, but the breadth of costly government commitments to help with the health care of the poor increased. In this case, moving the Medicare eligibility age would not help, nor would moving it closer help. What would help, though, is the revival of the public option, now under the more euphonic name of "Medicare for all".
Even if political weariness suggests this second round of reform wait for the second term, once the realities of the new healthcare regime emerge (principally, that private insurers were excessively protected from competition in it), it can be a popular and successful program that can contain key long-term healthcare cost problems. The initiative needs some key caveats to be outlined up front: that expansion must include fair (non-subsidized) pricing for most of the public, fair compensation for healthcare providers (so they don't drop out), and inclusion of the public option in employer-provided options. The policy consistent with Democrats' concern for the future is providing low-cost catastrophic health care for young, health people, which will importantly ease the states' growing problem with Medicaid costs and coverage.
While the current deficits will ease when the recovery gets legs, we cannot simply grow out of these long-term structural problems, and the Republicans can not be relied upon to help solve these.
o Military/foreign policy: I am one of the few who say there are often good reasons to develop partisan policies in this area--as opposed to consensus policies driven by military-industrial complex objectives. Soft power costs much less than military expansion and will accomplish more for us in the long run; we should be champions of foreign aid to accomplish objectives of reducing poverty, disease, tyranny, and war, rather than providing it mostly because of national security objectives. We should put strings on our military aid to nations such as Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, mostly related to ending policies which tend to lead to continued strife and war.
We have the opportunity to provide a "generation of peace" to our children. That would be a huge benefit to their lives, even if peace creates less jobs than continuous preparation for war. I am very much in favor of detente policies toward China, India and Russia which will lead us toward that promise, and should also produce pressure leading to positive results with the real trouble spots, like North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran.
o Commit to Environmental Improvement: President Obama's natural tendencies go the right way, but he is sometimes pressured to vary from the right course--his mistimed support for offshore oil drilling a few months ago being a good example. We should only back such things as "clean coal" burning and nuclear power if we have high confidence those investments will produce the desired results--no more bottomless "synfuel" or "biofuel" investments. On the other hand, major investment money for improving our capabilities in storage batteries, wind, solar, and geothermal should be forthcoming now. Natural gas is a viable transitional technology--much more than restoring offshore drilling--but it must be pursued with full attention to the safeguards necessary to protect our underground water resources.
One way or the other, we should commit to significant improvements in greenhouse gas emissions and, simultaneously, to reductions in imports of foreign-sourced fossil fuels (yes, driven by taxation on those commodities). We must back increased efforts to protect and restore ecosystems, ones backed by sound science and intelligent human relations, both domestically and internationally. We should support intelligent population growth management (and get off the politically-based, self-defeating policies conditioning assistance on contraception policy). Finally, we should advance the cause of water conservation as a global priority for the future, one that will be indispensable if global warming is arrested and imperative if it doesn't.
These are all policies the Democrats should advance boldly; if the Republicans recognize their wisdom, both political and social, and match them, so much the better. If not, they will have a winning platform for the next decade, at least.