On Tuesday, President Obama will deliver a State of the Union Address for his third year in office. It's likely to be the most closely watched of his presidency, as his allies and adversaries alike try to discern how he'll govern in a divided Washington. The president has already made it clear that he intends to offer an olive branch to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives by prioritizing issues like deficit reduction and education reform. Yet Obama supporters, who felt neglected for much of 2010, are also looking for the president to follow through on his message of hope and change — not to mention a few concrete campaign promises. To that end, I queried a number of prominent Democratic political strategists and policy experts and asked them: what's the single most important issue for President Obama to focus on in year three of his presidency? Below are five big ideas for 2011.
Reduce Everything to Jobs
In the midst of an economic downturn in 1992, Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush by effectively deploying the now-famous slogan "It's the economy, stupid." Former Clinton adviser Paul Begala believes Obama should emphasize a laser-like focus on the economy, particularly job creation. "I would reduce everything to jobs," Begala says. "I would analyze every domestic proposal, from Democrats and Republicans, according to that matrix: how many jobs will this create?" That would give Obama the upper hand in framing proposed Republican budget cuts as imperiling a fragile economic recovery. The House Republican plan to cut $100 billion from the domestic budget this year might sound fiscally prudent — until voters learn that it would result in 40,000 fewer teachers and school aids, and big reductions in law enforcement officers, small business assistance and money for Pell Grants, as Obama budget director Jack Lew quickly pointed out.
Rather than obsessing over the deficit, focusing on jobs would allow Obama to favorably contrast his economic vision with that of the GOP. "Obama talked about his North Star [after he signed the tax cut deal in December] but he didn't tell us what it was," Begala says. "Republicans, at least rhetorically, have a North Star and it's cutting spending. I want Democrats to say their North Star is creating jobs. Obama needs to own the word 'jobs.' Not 'stimulus' or 'capital markets' or 'infrastructure' or all the $5 Harvard words they use over there." The top priority from the American people is painstakingly clear, says former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg: "It's jobs, stupid."
Put People Back to Work
Simply talking about jobs will not be enough for Obama. He needs a plan to actually create more of them and put struggling Americans back to work. In February 2010, the Obama Administration delivered a major report to Congress outlining its road map for "rescuing, rebalancing, and rebuilding America's economy." That document encouraged AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. "The president recognized that this wasn't a normal recession and that the administration's response had to go beyond a simple economic recovery," Trumka says. The administration's response to the economic crisis, namely the stimulus bill and new rules for the financial industry, are important first steps, Trumka says, but not nearly enough to solve the crisis. "Right now we need big and bold policies to fix our economy," says the union chief. "We need a manufacturing policy to build things in America and to stop sending jobs overseas. We need investments in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. And we still need a fair tax policy where the very rich, corporations and Wall Street pay their fair share."
In a similar vein, former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich has called on the Obama administration to unveil a twenty-first-century version of FDR's famous Works Progress Administration, which produced eight millions jobs between 1935 and 1943, and could once again be financed through a tax surcharge on incomes above $1 million, Reich says. Even if the divided Congress fails to adopt these ideas, committing to an ambitious jobs program would certainly help Obama in hard-hit states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Democrats lost badly in 2010 and need to win in 2012
Reclaim Economic Populism
In the last election, 35 percent of voters blamed Wall Street for creating the economic crisis, but this anti–Wall Street bloc surprisingly backed Republicans over Democrats 56–42 percent, according to Ruy Texeira and John Halpin of the Center for American Progress. Miraculously, more voters associate support for Wall Street with the party of the people than the party of the country club. That's partly because President Obama has tried to play both sides himself. One minute he's assailing "fat cat" bankers, the next he's saying he doesn't "begrudge" multimillion-dollar Wall Street bonuses. Is he an advocate for Main Street Americans or an ally of the banks? The perception that he's in big business's pocket has done Obama great political damage, turning him into what Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne calls a "Wall Street liberal." To reverse this scenario, Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who worked for Obama in 2008, says the president and his party must reclaim economic populism.
"If the Democrats aren't populist, who the hell are we?" Belcher asks. "We've left the far right an opening to make an end run around us on populism." That's exactly what the Tea Party did in 2010, successfully assailing Obama's support for bailing out the banks and auto industry. Belcher points out that Americans are as mad at banks and credit card companies as they are at "big government." Obama can boost his standing by emphasizing how his administration is "empowering working families to protect themselves from big corporate interests," Belcher says. When it comes to selling policies like healthcare reform and Wall Street regulation, Belcher advises, Obama should point out the new rights individuals have to stem credit card abuses or previously restrictive health insurance rules. If he does that, legislation that remains abstract for many Americans will become more concrete and popular.
Help Struggling Homeowners
The Obama administration's response to the housing crisis, the $46 billion Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), has been widely criticized as both insufficient and ineffectual. According to a December report by the bipartisan Congressional Oversight Panel, "HAMP will prevent only 700,000 foreclosures — far fewer than the three to four million foreclosures that Treasury initially aimed to stop, and vastly fewer than the eight to 13 million foreclosures expected by 2012." That leaves millions of Americans still exposed to the foreclosure crisis, which remains one of the main drivers of the recession. "The biggest single thing Obama could do on the economy that would provide a massive boost would be a major mortgage write-down program," says Mike Lux, CEO of Progressive Strategies. "He doesn't have to have Congress to do it. He just needs federal agencies to start leaning on the banks." Given the bailout funds the banks received from the federal government, they owe Obama one. Lux calls the foreclosure crisis "the great sleeper issue" in American politics over the next two years."
Protect Social Security and Medicare
The Obama administration has made it clear that reducing the deficit is a major priority over the next two years. But whether he can out-hawk Republicans on this issue is questionable — not to mention that there's a good way and a bad way to balance the federal budget. Representative Jan Schakowsky, a member of President Obama's deficit commission, outlined the good way: she released an alternative plan calling for reducing wasteful weapons systems, closing corporate tax loopholes, increasing corporate and upper income tax rates, reducing agricultural subsidies and spurring targeted economic growth to lift us out of the recession. The bad route toward deficit reduction, as unveiled by Obama deficit commission chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, would cut Social Security and Medicare benefits, two of the signature achievements of the Democratic Party and widely popular programs among the American public. Cuts to Social Security and Medicare, says Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future (which has released its own progressive deficit plan), would "cost Obama the next election and cause a revolt in his base." Most Americans agree. When asked in a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll what the "first step" to balance the budget should be, 60 percent of Americans wanted to "increase taxes on the wealthy." Only 7 percent chose cuts to Social Security or Medicare. President Obama, are you listening?