Obama's Second Term: DDG (Deadlock, Debt, & Guns)
Four years ago Literary Gulag characterized Obama as our first postmodern president who embraced subjectivity and cultural relativism (Diana E. Sheets, “Barack Obama’s Postmodern Presidency and the Implications for Policy,” December 3, 2008, http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/39; see also my comment in Edward Luce’s article “Person of the Year: Barack Obama,” Financial Times, December 23, 2008, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/7d93a336-d02e-11dd-ae00-000077b07658.html#axzz2GNERWepJ). This perspective of Obama as the first postmodern president was recently affirmed in The Wall Street Journal (“The Postmodern President,” August 9, 2012, http://tinyurl.com/cowwqqb).
Nevertheless, even a postmodern president must govern and that necessitates judgments, choices, legislation, and allocations of funding that have intended and unintended consequences. Therefore if Obama wishes to succeed during his second term, he must address the quagmire of DDG—deadlock, debt, and guns. His must build consensus within a deeply divided nation in which there is no longer a shared worldview. As I pointed out in my recent interview with Michael F. Shaughnessy, political governance has become intractable because the values of progressives and conservatives have become sharply polarized since the 1990s, which has made it ever more difficult to find common ground (September 4, 2012, http://educationviews.org/an-interview-with-diana-sheets-who-is-right-and-what-is-left/).
What, then, will be Obama’s greatest challenges over the course of the next four years?
1. The Fiscal Cliff
One test of his capabilities as a leader will be Obama’s ability to negotiate a compromise that enables the Senate and House to reach agreement on the budget, thereby avoiding the sweeping tax increases that would ensue with the expiration of the 2010 Tax Relief Act and the imposition of the massive spending cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, the cumulative outcome of which some financial experts suggest would trigger an economic slowdown referred to as the “fiscal cliff.” However, any last minute compromises agreed to by Congress and authorized by the president are unlikely to address the structural challenges of reducing the debt, establishing solvency to the entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and now the prospect of Obamacare), and fundamentally rebuilding the economy (jobs, business incentives, infrastructure, educational opportunities designed to foster new technology initiatives that will nurture America’s innovative and industrial advantages).
2. Obamacare (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or PPACA)
Only eighteen out of fifty states have agreed to set up health-insurance exchanges for uninsured Americans who will be eligible for coverage beginning January 1, 2014. Consequently, the federal government will assume the lion’s share of responsibility for administering the program (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/print/2012-12-17/health-exchanges-to-be-run-by-18-states-as-most-governors-pass.html).
According to Sally Pipes, the costs of funding Obamacare are significant, at least one trillion and possibly as much as much as $2.5 trillion in the first ten years it’s fully operational (2014-2023). In 2013 alone, five new taxes are being introduced to finance Obamacare. Another significant round of taxes are scheduled for 2014. According to the Manhattan Institute, just the excise tax on medical-device companies, which is slated to begin January 1, 2013, could result in as many as 43,000 layoffs and a loss of $3.5 billion in associated employee compensation. And this is just one of a series of taxes to be introduced to support Obamacare (http://www.forbes.com/sites/sallypipes/2012/12/25/in-2013-millions-of-americans-face-obamacare-tax-hikes/) while the total costs of the program have yet to be fully assessed.
Let’s hope that what should have been a simple health care bill to serve the needs of struggling Americans doesn’t become the whale that swallows Jonah. Congress should rewrite this legislation to limit its scope and cost. Alternatively and preferably, it should retire Obamacare and pass a new bill that streamlines the benefits, costs, and administrative processes while recognizing that medical care requires contributions from all participants.
3. Our Escalating Debt
Given the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, the question must be asked: Can Obama significantly reduce our exponentially increasing debt given that his supporters are committed to social welfare programs regardless of our nation’s ability to pay for them? (See my essay “Obama’s 2012 Victory: The Demographic Becomes the Narrative,” November 30, 2012, http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/75).
Conservatives think individuals must take responsibility. Progressives feel there is more than enough money to fund welfare programs and tend to believe that if wealthy people are taxed more that the nation’s fiscal problems can be resolved even when the financial numbers suggest otherwise (December 6, 2012, http://www.dentonrc.com/opinion/columns-headlines/20121206-walter-e.-williams-taxing-the-rich-wont-solve-our-problems.ece; December 27, 2012, http://www.newsday.com/opinion/boychuck-washington-won-t-solve-the-real-fiscal-cliff-1.4380450).
Our debt problems are increasingly linked to our burgeoning entitlement programs that are exacerbated by the growing number of Americans reaching retirement age. The debt can’t be effectively resolved without addressing our entitlement programs to ensure their current and future solvency. Accomplishing this fairly and humanely is difficult.
The demographics of America’s aging population suggest the challenges of continuing to fund entitlement programs. Baby boomers are increasingly headed for retirement. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that Americans 65 and older over will double in number by 2060, increasing from one in seven U.S. residents to more than one in five. During this same period, the number of Americans 85 and older are expected to triple in number and to constitute 4.3 percent of the population (“U.S. Census Bureau Projections Show a Slower Growing, Older, More Diverse Nation a Half Century from Now,” December 12, 2012, http://tinyurl.com/a9dahoa). These trends suggest the importance of reforming entitlement programs so that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and now Obamacare will have the ability to meet the needs of Americans both now and in the future.
Reduce the debt and entitlement costs. Find ways of encouraging Americans to achieve success through personal initiative. These are the means to fostering personal and national prosperity.
However, the issue of debt remains more vexing than it might seem. Conservatives think that individuals should be fiscally responsible. Progressives believe that if everyone pays his or her share there’s more than enough money. These perceptions are grounded in profound differences in worldview that won’t be addressed by taxes or greater funding to entitlement programs. The solution requires a shared sense of values and a commitment on the part of all Americans to work toward common goals based on mutual responsibility.
Perspectives about guns—as with debt, entitlement programs, and attitudes about work—are deeply rooted in worldview. Not only is the “right to keep and bear arms” specified in the Second Amendment of the Constitution, for many Americans it remains a deeply personal matter of choice based on foundational beliefs about freedom and individual responsibility unhampered by government and social restraints.
But the question must be posed: If we could find a public policy solution toward cigarette smoking, balancing the health risks and safety issues with the desire on the part of some Americans to smoke measured against the risk to other members of the society, why can’t we begin to find a solution to the issue of gun control? Innocent Americans are increasingly injured or killed by assault-type weapons and semi-automatic guns. The gun industry has failed to regulate itself in an effort to address this growing problem. Now it must work with legislators in order to find a solution. Let’s hope Obama can prevail on all interested parties to pass important gun control legislation.
5. Ensuring That America Governs From a Position of Strength Rather Than Weakness
President Obama is motivated by Rawlsian notions of social justice manifestly evident in his advocacy of healthcare reform (Chris Underation, “The Art of the Impossible: Obama, Rawls and American Healthcare,” American Communication Journal, 2012 WINTER (Volume 14, Issue 1, 18-32, http://ac-journal.org/journal/pubs/2011/winter/ACJ_2011-008_Chris%5B1%5D.pdf).
For Obama, the end game isn’t, strictly speaking, national: it’s global. But the reality is that he wasn’t elected as a global leader. He was elected to represent American interests. Certainly, this means ensuring that the least advantaged Americans have opportunities.
Nevertheless, the challenge for Obama is advancing America's global stature while domestically encouraging economic prosperity and social opportunity. But this must be done while simultaneously balancing the budget and modifying entitlement programs in order that they can serve the needs of both present and future generations of Americans. Let’s hope Obama realizes that without economic wealth there can be no government-mandated social justice to fund his cherished entitlement programs.
Will Obama remember as he begins his second term that his job as president is to serve all Americans, not just those who may have elected him? A great president works hard to advance the dreams and opportunities of each and every one of us. We expect nothing less from President Obama.