The Agenda

Major Garrett on the Case for a Second Obama Term

Major Garrett of National Journal has an article this morning on “Obama’s invisible second-term agenda.” After describing the president’s reluctance to tout his policy achievements, many of which are relatively unpopular with the public, Garrett quotes a Democratic consultant on how the party should frame the election:

With such difficulty dealing with reelection basics—what you have done and are people better off—it might be assumed that Obama’s team would by now have fortified the “forward” part of its message. Forward in pursuit of what?

“The answer is simple: Work, work, work,” said Boston-based Democratic consultant Mary Ann Marsh. “Work for the middle class. Work for veterans. Work for minorities. Work for everybody, not just a few. The message has to be in this down economy everyone has sacrificed except the well-off. People have changed their mortgages, stopped spending on things, paid down debt. People have sacrificed. Obama has to explain that making the rich pay some more is the way everybody benefits.

Allowing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy (defined as adjusted gross income of at least $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for families) to expire is the best-known part of the Obama agenda. He introduced a jobs bill last fall that sought to hire or retain police officers, firefighters, and teachers as well as accelerate road- and bridge-construction projects. Obama still mentions this in his stump speeches, but usually in the context of denouncing an obstructionist, GOP-led House and a filibuster-minded Senate minority. [Emphasis added]

To be sure, Marsh is speaking for herself, but her distillation of the Democratic message does seem perfectly consistent with what we’ve heard from the president. That is, his central goal will be to raise taxes on high-earners, as doing so will yield society-wide benefits that have yet to be fully explained. One possibility is that these increased taxes will reduce the accumulation of debt, and this will deliver the benefits Marsh invokes. As we’ve discussed, however, it is extremely unlikely that raises taxes on the highest-earning 2 percent of households alone will allow the U.S. to achieve fiscal balance, and so these tax increases would have to be accompanied by aggressive spending restraint. The Obama administration has not been arguing that aggressive spending restraint will benefit everyone in the U.S. This leaves aside the possibility that concentrating any increase in the tax burden on high-earners will have a deleterious impact on work incentives.

The other (implicit) component of the president’s agenda is an increase in public sector hiring. David Frum has addressed the limitations of this strategy elsewhere. There is a reasonable case to be made that the U.S. would gain considerably from a sharp increase in the number of police officers, to name one example. Yet the presence of highly restrictive work rules and the costs associated with generous defined benefit pensions, which flow from the attractiveness of deferred compensation to incumbent politicians who assume that their successors will be left “holding the bag,” have created a situation in which public sector hiring is more costly than necessary. Rather than embrace collective bargaining reform, which might help states and local governments revise the terms of public employment, thus making this strategy more economically viable, the president and his allies have condemned it, in part, presumably, because public sector unions are a crucial source of resources and manpower for progressive political causes. 

The president has made a somewhat different case for his reelection. As Ramesh Ponnuru explains, President Obama believes that congressional Republicans are far more likely to embrace his priorities in a second term than in his first. But this is, in Ramesh’s view, a faulty premise:

The kind of campaign Obama is running militates against his credibly claiming a mandate after getting re-elected. He is, for the most part, banking on getting reelected by tearing down Romney rather than attracting voters with his own second-term agenda. Sure, an Obama victory would reasonably be interpreted as a sign that the public isn’t wild about restructuring Medicare the way Republicans want. But Republicans wouldn’t make any serious effort to act on that idea without an ally in the White House anyway. Obama will have fulfilled most of his mandate — not to “end Medicare as we know it,” not to let a job-outsourcer become president — the minute he wins. He won’t get extra leverage on live legislative issues before the Congress, because his campaign isn’t even asking the public for it.

In fairness, the Democratic National Convention will give the president an opportunity to make a more compelling case for where he intends to take the country. 


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