Obama’s Dunkirk moment

Barack Obama will certainly be nominated by his party and probably reelected President. The polls, Intrade and Nate Silver agree; so it seems do such conservatives as David Cameron and Boris Johnson; even Rupert Murdoch is unenthusiastic about the GOP slate. So does common sense, weighing Obama’s reasonable-to-good record against an outstandingly poor Republican ticket. So why is such little attention being paid to Obama’s plans for his second term?

At first sight, it’s sensible for liberals to concentrate on defeating Romney and Ryan. But even in terms of narrow electoral politics, running a purely negative, defensive campaign rarely works. Obama and the congressional Democrats need to offer their alternative. I tried to get a discussion going in February on this with a catchy eight-point plan, but had no success. Obama’s acceptance speech provides a better hook.

Democrats have two alternatives: steady-as-she-goes, or the vision thing. The former aims to keep the recovery going, manage crises for the best, and shepherd ACA through to full implementation. Without a Congressional majority, that may be all that’s attainable. But it’s rather sad and wimpy.

From my safe and distant armchair, I’m a vicarious fire-eater and would like to see more ambition. More’s the point, I think Obama’s sense of his place in history will require it. The chance of a House majority is admittedly slim, but it’s not enhanced by steady-as-she-goes and praying for an unlikely GOP implosion: Ryan isn’t Palin. The Democratic strategy is to beat GOP ad-buying by a superior ground game – and that depends on an army of volunteers, whose enthusiasm, after years of disappointment, needs to be rekindled. This needs an agenda, not just pretty feelgood speeches.

So I hope and and expect Obama will make a bold acceptance speech. He won’t just defend the progressive heritage of the New Deal and the Great Society, and his own contribution, ACA. What are the other big issues left on the shelf in his first term? I see two.

  • Campaign finance. Restoring democracy from the grip of money requires radical reform of the way politics in the USA is paid for: not just a rollback of Citizens United, but real transparency and strict limits on contributions, possibly public funding and free access to the airwaves. The problem here is that reform requires a majority not only in Congress but the Supreme Court, and the latter depends on the fickle demography of death. The issue is also very wonkish and many voters don’t appreciate its importance.  Obama is not likely to launch a battle he has so little chance of winning.
  • The second big item is climate change. Obama should, and I think will, finally come off the fence here. If he does so, he must propose a sweeping plan to lead the world away, just in time, from the climate breakdown we are already beginning to witness. (This useful phrase is George Monbiot’s.) He may fail in Congress; but the attempt would hearten the many states (including Midwest swing ones) and the corporations and nonprofits and citizens that are taking the challenge seriously, and just maybe enable a small-boats Dunkirk rescue.

Dunkirk beach, May 1940


Update: Kevin Drum has a good summary and a gloomier take on this problem. Unfortunately the long comment thread is off-topic rubbish.


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