On January 20,2009, from a prison in Beaumont, Texas, I called my youngest son's cell phone. It was about 11am, and when he answered I could barely hear him due to the background noise. He was standing on the Capital Mall amidst more than one million others celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama. I was in tears as I spoke to him...my voice cracking with emotion. He was present where history was being made. He had attended a concert in Obama's honor the day before and stood at the front of the stage listening to everyone from Springsteen to James Taylor serenade the President. I could tell in his voice he was tired and moved and excited at being there. My emotions were on my sleeve because I was talking to him...sharing with him his observations and reactions...wishing I could be there with him. He will always remember where he was that day just as I will always remember the joy of connecting with him for a brief moment which we can both cherish forever.
He won't attend this year's inauguration. Estimates are the crowd will be smaller and the event less emotionally intense. It has been a long 4 years and many people are tired of the combat and brinksmanship which characterized much of the first term. Obama was re-elected because his opponent could not rally enough angry white people to put him in the White House. Americans have no illusions about a second term. If there were some reason to anticipate an audacity of hope in the first term, most Americans would settle for a modicum of competency in the second. The ongoing uber-partisanship exhibited already does not bode well for hope or competency. No one has asked, but I will offer some hopes and wishes for a second term and I invite you, in your comments, to add to the list. We do this knowing full well, if we don't get involved...lobby...agitate..write...call and stir things up, nothing we desire will be attained.
Despite all the talk about Obama being a socialist..communist...anti-capitalist Muslim from Indonesia...a stealth weapon aimed at the rich and prosperous, Obama's first term saw an economic bailout and stimulus aimed directly at Wall Street and almost ignoring Main Street. (which makes it even more stupefying to see Wall Street pouring millions into the campaign coffers of Mitt Romney to defeat Obama...I sure hope he holds grudges) A banking industry which caused the worst depression since 1929 has been made whole with profits rising. No one has gone to jail. Investigations were bought off with a few billion-dollar fines. The Dodd/Frank financial services legislation has been gelded by the moneyed lobbyists and the same banks refuse to ease lending rules stifling an economic recovery. Hardly the record of a raving socialist.
In his second term, Obama needs a grand economic bargain. He needs to increase tax rates and close loopholes for the 1%, not one or the other. He needs to reform the tax code so "carried interest", the millions Romney receives in income from investments each year, is taxed like ordinary income. Capital gains taxes need to go up if corporate rates are going to go down. Tax breaks worth billions for oil and gas companies need to end along with ethanol, water and other subsidies.
At the same time, spending has to decrease. The deficit is a real danger. Obama needs to start with the war department. Its budget needs to be reduced dramatically. A 10%-15% cut could easily be absorbed as its budget has seen double digit increases for at least the last 10 years. (getting all the troops out of Afghanistan will help as will ending a number of white elephant procurement programs. Personnel must be eliminated) Medicare spending must be reduced, but that goes part and parse with my second recommendation. Means testing Medicare and Social Security shouldn't be anathema. Removing the earnings cap for Social Security will put it on firm financial ground well into the future.
In his second term, Obama has to make sure his health care reforms work. Health care is the main driver of a fiscal time bomb which could derail any recovery. He has to be committed to the establishment of real and competitive health exchanges in every state. Exchanges which force health insurance companies to compete for customers and drive down rates. He has to stop insurance companies from double digit rate increases using loopholes in the law. There is going to be a huge shortage of primary care doctors for all the new patients his plan covers, and Obama needs to require more and larger medical school classes with a promise to forgive tuition loans if graduates specialize in primary care disciplines. If he does this well...if Americans can get affordable insurance and access to doctors...if innovation in health care is encouraged...Obama's legacy will be assured right next to Lyndon Johnson, who started Medicare, as presidents who served the nation well.
Obama loves Wall Street. (just look at his economic team) Big money can sway him and his people. However, he has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild the manufacturing base in America creating tens of thousands of new jobs and improve the environment at the same time. Obama has to resist the siren call to export natural gas. Natural gas prices are so low, companies are moving back to America to set up manufacturing plants. Low energy costs, combined with lower transportation costs, make America a manufacturing winner and counters the low labor costs of China et.al. There will be tremendous pressure on Obama to approve natural gas exports. It will literally kill the golden goose if he succumbs. It will drive up the cost and undercut the appeal of made in America. The nation's oil and gas companies will put great pressure on him to agree to exports. They don't care about national needs or security. The bottom line is their god. If Obama gets this wrong, his legacy goes up in smoke from coal fired plants.
Despite all the heated rhetoric around immigration, the facts are plain. America benefits from immigration. In many other parts of the industrialized world, populations are aging and not maintaining a sustainable birth rate. Demographers recently announced California's birth rate has dropped below the level which sustains the population. Immigrants have higher birthrates and infuse youth into the country. Immigrants with skills also benefit the nation. Immigrants bring a solid work ethic and desire to belong and to contribute. An immigration bill which allows all immigrants to have a path to citizenship is an economic necessity. They are already contributing. It's time to welcome them.
National security is one place we can hope a second term differs in some way from the first. It is difficult to see where George Bush stops and Obama begins when it comes to national security. Obama has fought for increased government spying and used national security to prevent citizens from suing the government for abuses. He fought for renewal of the Patriot Act and is pushing for the creation of a new huge data collection center in Utah, which will allow the government to finally destroy the 4th amendment. He has sanctioned more drone strikes than Bush could have imagined and he supports the belief the president can order the killing of any American deemed an "enemy" without due process. His first four years have seen Guantanamo still open, a willingness to saber rattle with regards to Iran and no clear policy on dealing with China or Pakistan let alone the nations of the Arab Spring. His national security record is a disaster from the most modest of civil liberty views. It will continue in the next four years unless someone, like Chuck Hegel, can act as a counterbalance in the Pentagon.
We are told the President has about an 18-month window to accomplish these goals before the race to replace him sucks all the oxygen out of Washington. He needs to settle the fiscal debates quickly. He should call out obstructionists in both parties and govern for all the people, not just the ones who can afford to lobby him.
I can feel the emotion well up inside me as I think of the call to my son that day. Despite my shortcomings and failure, he was able to be present for history in the making and soaked up the rays of hope emanating from the West side of the Capital. I was able to share it with him for a few minutes. These next four years will be the proof of the pudding as to whether or not that hope was justified. God I hope it was.