The recent past has led Americans to expect little from Washington, D.C. What President Obama’s second inauguration on Monday offers is a fresh chance to appeal to our leaders to be better than we think they are, and to demonstrate that the nation isn’t so big and politically divided as to be ungovernable.
If that sounds naive, the alternative sounds intolerable – more grandstanding and gridlock interrupted by last-minute deals that only postpone disaster. That is no way to lead a nation, certainly not one long admired and imitated around the world.
Obama came forward last week with a surprisingly broad agenda targeting gun violence in the wake of the horrific school massacre in Newtown, Conn. But rather than expend all his political capital on a fight the National Rifle Association already may have won, the president should make repairing the nation’s economy and the government’s finances his highest priority.
It is to Obama’s credit that his administration, building on the effective crisis management of the Bush White House and Congress, spared the country another Great Depression. But the kind of stimulus and other deficit spending that averted the worst has ballooned the national debt by 55 percent since Obama took office, to $16.4 trillion, and last year’s 2 percent economic growth still left far too many Americans jobless.
The solution only started with the tax increases on the wealthy that Obama won this month to avoid the fiscal cliff. Now, he has to disprove his critics and come to the table with true spending cuts to address the four-year tide of $1 trillion budget deficits.
With no next election to worry about, he should be free to broker serious reforms of Medicaid, Social Security and Medicare. The Simpson-Bowles commission’s recommendations and the budget blueprint of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., can guide the process.
Having blown his first-term goal of passing comprehensive immigration reform, Obama now must make it a priority, perhaps partnering with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to put the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here on a path to citizenship while widening the nation’s doors to highly skilled guest workers.
Mitigating the problems of Obamacare and realizing its potential to cut costs are among the crucial tasks ahead, as are extricating the U.S. military from Afghanistan and navigating the political change in the Mideast while keeping Iran out of the nuclear-arms club. He also wants to cut oil importation and double U.S. exports – fine goals ready-made for Kansas drillers and Wichita manufacturers.
Whatever the next four years bring, Obama’s chief concerns will need to be the country’s fiscal condition and fragile economy. He and Congress must reset their relationship and pull the country out of this mess – not just for Americans today but for future generations.