President Obama’s reelection on Tuesday marks the end of a long campaign. Like most other campaigns, we again failed to have a national discussion about our long-term problems. (More)
The smallness of this campaign will have consequences. President Obama has no strong mandate to do anything in particular, and faces an opposition party who feel compelled to block his agenda – and will have enough votes to do it.
We have not thoroughly debated some of the biggest problems we face. We have growing and historic levels of income inequality. Median income has been flat or declining since the 1980s. We have not restored the depression era rules to prevent another financial crash. We are scandalously ignoring climate change. At what point can we reduce the civil liberties infringing security structures put in place to deal with terrorism? What should our response be if another big terrorist attack happens? What is our long-term thinking about a rising China?
Given the narrowness of this campaign, we elected a president without providing any guidance about what to do about those issues. And frankly, this is just the way the elites in this country want it. Popular mandates can be a dangerous thing to elite interests.
The campaigns did discuss big issues like unemployment and budget debt, but they did so in a disingenuous way. An honest conversation about these issues would admit that the solutions to these problems are in tension with each other. What we need to do to balance the budget (raise taxes, cut spending) will increase unemployment. What we need to do to lower unemployment (increase consumer demand) will increase our debt.
Consider the upcoming ‘fiscal cliff.’ At the end of the year, if we do nothing, three things will happen. One, the Bush tax cuts will expire – our taxes will go up. Two, the temporary payroll tax cuts that were part of the Obama stimulus will expire – again, our taxes will go up. Three, the budget cuts demanded by Teapublicans to end the debt ceiling debacle will begin – our spending will go down.
So, if we do nothing – and our political system is pretty good at doing nothing – taxes will go up and spending will go down. If our biggest problem are debts and deficits, then these developments will help solve that problem. But we are calling this a ‘fiscal cliff.’ Why are these developments considered dangerous? Because they will slow the economic recovery and, according to many economists, risk another recession. We cannot balance our budget and facilitate economic recovery at the same time – all one has to do is look at Europe to confirm this.
It is stunning that so little of the campaign addressed this. Neither side wanted to have that honest conversation. We simply have to prioritize. Is the debt or unemployment our biggest problem? Do we reduce our debt and risk higher unemployment in the short term? Or do we lower unemployment and risk higher debts in the short term? Our campaign could have been about this important issue. Republicans could have championed debt reduction, and Democrats could have championed lowering unemployment. The winner would have had a mandate to go in a particular direction.
Neither side, though, wanted to admit that solving one problem will make the other one worse. Both wanted to pretend that we can deal with both at the same time. The Democrats propose half-measures that will end up not solving either problem. They are too scared to propose a stimulus that will deal with the unemployment problem, and too scared to agree to the entitlement reforms that deal with the debt issues. So they nibble at the edges: tax the rich a little, reduce the growth of entitlement and military spending a little, increase spending in infrastructure and education a little, etc. This approach may be all that is possible given our political system, and they at least go in the right direction, but it is a timid approach to our problems.
Republicans seem ideologically blind to these tensions. Somehow they believe that not raising taxes, increasing military spending and drastic cuts to everything else will magically balance the budget and reduce our debt. And then somehow a balanced budget will magically lead to an economic recovery and everyone having jobs. This is pure fantasy. The Ryan budget will make both problems worse.
The campaigns did not attempt to honestly educate us about the choices our country faces. It is up to us to do that for ourselves. And it is up to us to hold whoever wins accountable. If we do, then maybe this will not end up a wasted campaign.