The question posed by The New York Times to a wide variety of political observers, 15 in all, was simple, and perhaps a bit plaintive: "How can Obama rebound?"
The answers, in the form of mini-op-eds, mostly fell into two categories: First, liberals who think the President should continue to be liberal, but sell it better; and second, conservatives who think Obama should be, well, more conservative. Speaking for myself, as someone to the right of Obama and who did not vote for him in 2008, I can still concede that the best advice to any politician is to start with who he or she is. And in Obama's case, that means starting on the left and working back over to the middle. Because it's in the middle that national elections are won.
So that's why I thought that two of the op-ed "mcnuggets" offered Obama a genuine ray of hope. That is to say, they offered advice that the 44th President could plausibly follow, advice that would move him to the center in a constructive way, without fracturing his lefty base. Not surprisingly, those two op-eds came from two authors with experience winning red states. The first was a top adviser to Bill "Triangulator" Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign, which the Democrat won in a landslide, making him the first Democrat to win re-election since FDR. And the second was from the wife of a then-populist Democrat who won an upset victory in a Southern state back in 1998. I am speaking, therefore, of Mark Penn and Elizabeth Edwards, who campaigned alongside her husband, John, when he pitched himself as a moderate to defeat a Republican incumbent.
One needn't agree with all that Penn and Edwards have to say, or what they stand for, to nonetheless recognize that they are offering shrewd advice to any candidate--in either party--who wishes to win over the swing voters in the middle.
First, Penn suggested a mix of policies, all aimed, as he put it, "retak[ing] ownership of the center." And that means some spending cuts, but also some spending increases: As the veteran Democratic pollster wrote, if Obama wants to make a comeback, he should start by "making a real down payment on the deficit, revamping the health care act to address the cost issue."
OK, that's budget-cutting and deficit reduction, always sensible in a time of trillion-dollar deficits. But at the same time, we must remember that government overspending was not the proximate cause of the recession--it was the mortgage bubble, along with the even larger financial bubble. Therefore it follows, to any Democrat--and to many independents and even some conservatives--that America needs a plan for moving America back toward physical production, as opposed to real estate speculation and financial "innovation." And we might further observe that simply chopping at healthcare spending is a guaranteed political loser. As we shall see--and as I have been arguing at my blog, Serious Medicine Strategy, the smart approach to health-savings is by helping people to be healthier, and therefore less needful of medical help, as well as more productive in the workforce.
But those ideas were at least alluded to in Penn's prescription. As he wrote, Obama should also dedicate himself to "opening up new markets overseas and creating jobs by promoting innovation through spending on basic research."
And Penn goes further:
Rather than cut the space program, he should double its size. He should make sure that every American with a broadband connection has access to online education. He should offer research grants and tax incentives to promote investment in our coal, natural gas and biofuel resources, as well as wind and solar energy.
Bravo! Yes, it's entirely appropriate to cut spending where necessary. But it's also appropriate to spend where spending is needed--on projects such as energy independence. And yes, the space program should be doubled, just as Penn says, because space exploration provide larger benefits to our economic well-being and national security. (One might add, of course, that to make NASA credible again in the eyes of ordinary Americans, perhaps it needs a new administrator, committed to space and rocketry, as opposed to Muslim outreach and global social work.)
Next up, Elizabeth Edwards, the estranged wife of former Sen. John Edwards. John Edwards, of course, has shamed everyone who ever knew him, while Elizabeth Edwards has created a dignified new life for herself as a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-of-center DC think tank. But what she wrote about in her Times piece transcends partisanship and ideology:
Before Ted Kennedy died, he and his fellow senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas proposed a renewed war on cancer. President Obama should take up that proposal.
Cancer touches nearly every American family, creating emotional, physical and financial hardship. Each of those families would be cheerleaders in this fight, rooting for earlier detection, improved treatments and — dare we dream — cures. And unlike the debates over health care and financial reform, there are no cheerleaders on the other side, no monied interests hoping to retain the status quo, no lobbying groups working to mute every victory with so many concessions that it seems like a loss.
With a renewed war on cancer, the president could change — there is that word again — the lives of millions of Americans and their families. And a nation would cheer him on again.
We could add that not only would a real war against cancer be popular, but it would also be good economics. An increasingly affluent world is suffering from the same medical maladies as the US and the West--including more cancer. So the country that comes up with the cure will be the medicine chest to the world. And that's a lucrative place to be.
Conservative, libertarians, and tea partiers all have their own ideas on the national agenda. But in the meantime, with Obama in office, and gearing up for a re-election campaign, groups on the right should factor in Obama's plans, not just their own plans. If the President were to listen to Penn and Edwards, and make himself over into a pro-technology, pro-cure centrist, he would be a formidable foe in 2012. If he doesn't do so, if he doesn't move to the center, then he will likely lose.
In which case, the next president will face the challenge of reviving the economy and saving money on healthcare, without hurting old people. And so even then, elements of the Penn/Edwards platform will look mighty attractive.