November 21st, 2008

As Obama’s transition takes shape, he’s looking less and less like FDR in 1933. Barack Obama, candidate, campaigned on a clear and considered platform of universal health care, action on climate change, liberal internationalism, and fairer taxes. As the financial disaster unfolded, he added a recovery programme heavy on infrastructure investment. All his floated picks – and the pardon for Lieberman and contrasting ouster of Dingell – reflect a methodical and lawyerish determination to carry out his promises. This is all very unlike the volatile FDR, who came to power without any similar blueprint, only the will to learn and to act. I think we can look forward to a very impressive first term.

But what about the second? Team Obama consists so far of seasoned executives, not ideas people.

They don’t look to me like the sort who can create an agenda for the probable second term. He should create space for them somewhere: a Minister without Portfolio in British terms, or a small brains trust. People like Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the DNA code, a brilliant perpetual graduate student who hung around Cambridge labs until he teamed up with the driven James Watson; or Charles Darwin, the unknown young dilettante hired by Captain Fitzroy to keep him company on the long voyage planned for the Beagle. The ideas people must not be hived off into some quiet ivory tower; better a room in the basement with regular access to the water cooler of the men and women of action. Otherwise you might as well rely on the usual suspects in academia and the blogosphere. The team should try to make use of Obama’s extraordinary volunteer machine as a democratic intellectual resource, not just a GOTV militia.

What should this Purple Team (it should not take Red and Blue as givens) work on? Let’s start with a few problems that won’t be solved even if everything in Obama’s platform goes through. Off the top of my head:

1. Global governance. The UN would be dysfunctional even without Bush’s sabotage. What should replace the Security Council? What about a standing force? Where should traditional intergovernmentalism give way to the partial surrender of sovereignty to Monnet-type agencies with true executive authority?

2. Crime and punishment. Can the scandalous US rates of incarceration be halved?

3. Inequality. Can rising inequality be reversed by social, educational and fiscal policy?

4. Settlements. What should replace the dysfunctional model of an urban core without inhabitants, ghettoes of the poor, and sprawling suburbs? (OK, my stereotype of Houston.)

5. Community. How can diverse communities be rebuilt in the information age?

6. Happiness. Can government make this a goal in any sensible way? If not, how can it change other indicators to reduce distortions (e.g. GDP against leisure and environmental quality)?

7. Appalachia. What kind of regional development can bring it out of the McCain age? Not FDR’s electricity and dams.

8. The US Constitution. Time for an overhaul?

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