The second year of the Obama Era is young, but we may be seeing the emergence of Obama 2.0 — a president willing to do battle against the dark forces of stasis and negativity.
Obama 1.0 didn’t want to get ahead of Congress. Obama 2.0 appears ready to go head-to-head with Democrats who have the numbers to lead but lack the discipline, and Republicans whose only big idea is to make Democrats fail — a job that has turned out to be pretty easy so far.
Now, the president seems open to strategy change, and he’s being flooded with fresh advice.
In the new issue of TIME, for example, columnist Mark Halperin suggests that Obama “borrow from the playbook of Ronald Reagan” by becoming bigger than life, standing for a few big things and striking themes with which no self-respecting American patriot — Republican, Democrat or Tea Person — can disagree.
Halperin is correct. Obama 1.0 worked at playing the Washington game; Obama 2.0 must prove he can change the game, as he promised in the campaign. He should lead us in a tectonic shift from the politics of fear to the politics of hope.
The Right claims we are losing the America we love. The Left tells us we are teetering on the brink of environmental collapse. Both tell us we should be very afraid. A little fear is good. It teaches us, metaphorically speaking, not to touch the hot pot on the stove. But fear without hope leads to the kind of persistent polarity, political paralysis and apocalypse fatigue that seems to be infecting the American spirit like a pandemic.
As evangelists of hope like to point out, Martin Luther King told us about a dream, not a nightmare. When President Reagan accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president, he talked of a “shining city on a hill”, not a collapsed civilization. Just before taking office in 1961, back in the day when masculine pronouns were still politically correct, John Kennedy invoked the same image, saying:
Today, the eyes of all people are truly upon us – and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill – constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.
If I were advising President Obama on the big populist ideas that should be the themes for his second year in office, I would recommend he begin a new national conversation about the future – not just the future we must avoid, but also the future we must build. He talks often about the “new energy economy”. It’s the right goal, but TWTS — Too Wonkish To Sizzle in the popular imagination. Instead, on his next visit to the bully pulpit, Obama 2.0 might say:
We challenge the world’s biggest economies to a “Race to the Top.”
By 2020, the United States will be the most resource efficient, innovative, self-sufficient and environmentally responsible economy on the planet.
Again, the president has come close, without quite firing the starting pistol. In his State of the Union address, he said:
There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains, or the new factories that manufacture clean energy products. … China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. … They’re making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America.
Since China is already in full sprint, let’s make the race official. Let’s throw down the challenge and identify the finish line.
Just by participating, we will become a more secure and genuinely prosperous nation. We all know the benefits of weaning ourselves from carbon-intensive fuels — particularly imported oil: We’ll plug some of the biggest leaks in our economy, clean the air, free ourselves from other nations that don’t have our best interests at heart, eliminate the temptation to meddle in parts of the world where we are not welcome, undermine Osama bin Laden’s influence by taking away some of his best recruiting arguments, and eliminate the need to send our sons and daughters to kill and be killed in oil wars.
In the future we want, Obama 2.0 might say:
We’ll shift the epicenters of U.S. energy production from places like the Middle East, Nigeria and Venezuela to places like North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas. We’ll wildcat the sun. Our farms and rural communities will become prosperous and robust again as they earn new income by harvesting wind, sunlight and sustainable energy crops; and by providing carbon sequestration services through advanced soil and forest management.
The second big idea for Obama 2.0 involves national security. He should build on the theme advanced by some military experts that the United States must be as skilled at nation building as it is at war fighting. The president might say:
It is time to redefine national defense to meet the new realities of the 21st Century. We must be prepared not only to fight wars, but also to prevent them by redoubling our efforts to help developing nations build prosperity and stability where there now is poverty, instability and despair. Among the new realities of national security is the growing threat to the environmental systems that support life in some of the world’s most volatile regions. We have come to a time when solar cells and wind turbines are as important to world security as guns and tanks. We must beat some of our swords into solar collectors. Investments in clean energy are the new defense spending.
He should continue:
It has never been more obvious that we are one world. The global economic crisis, the global flu pandemic, the global food crisis and the fact that every person’s pollution now threatens the health and welfare of everyone else — these are incontrovertible physical evidence that all people of all nations are connected.
So, we recommit the United States to the international goal of ending extreme poverty with sustainable technologies and progress. We will share our knowledge and resources to help the world’s less developed nations achieve decent, safe and sanitary lives for their people. We will show through deeds as well as words what we know in our hearts to be true: No one is secure until all people are secure; no one can prosper while so many in our country and around the world are poor; and our future depends on building a global ecological economy in which we sustain the natural systems that sustain us.
Finally, Obama 2.0 might reemphasize that to achieve these big goals, all Americans must become nation-builders in their communities. Every American should commit to doing three things every day to “green” our lives, at home and work. He can explain it this way:
We will be the architects of our future, or its victims. From this moment forward, we choose to be its architects. When the rest of the world looks upon our city on the hill, it will see generosity rather than greed, hope rather than despair, sustainable prosperity rather than economic collapse. Creating that proverbial city is America’s mission for the next decade.
To help the American people get involved, the president should engage organizations and individuals across America who already are creating images of the future, often out of the spotlight — for example, the America 2050 project of the Regional Plan Association and the Future We Want project at Natural Capitalism Solutions.
He should convene America’s leading experts in energy, finance, business, labor and governance, along with the Departments of Energy, Interior, Agriculture and Commerce and the EPA, to propose a 10-year plan to win the race to the top — the goals, timetables, policies and voluntary actions we’ll need from government and the private sector nationwide. Among other things, the plan should lay out how the industries and workers that built America over the last two centuries — from steelworkers and automakers to the oil, gas and coal industries — will make the transition with the rest of us and play an essential role in building the new energy economy.
So far, as Joe Romm has put it, we have been missing a “Pearl Harbor moment” to unify and mobilize us. We’ve been missing a Sputnik moment like the one that inspired us to win the space race. But in reality, similar moments are upon us again, unfolding so gradually that some of us have failed to see them while others deny their urgency.
The insidious, destabilizing effect of climate change and carbon energy is our Pearl Harbor moment. China’s drive to overtake the United States as the global technology leader is our Sputnik moment. How we respond will say everything about whether America is capable of getting its mojo working again.
It won’t be easy to start, let alone sustain, a national zeitgeist of hope. Not everyone will lay down his placard or rise from his barcalounger.
Some of our most visible personalities and institutions — ranging from the traditional news media to the Querulous Class on television, radio and in the blogosphere — make their livings in the negativity business. They appeal to an audience more entertained by trash talk than happy talk and to news media that thrive on conflict. When there’s not enough conflict, the news media invent it or give air time to those who do — for example, the made-for-television Tea Party. This is a time when a measurable audience share considers Glenn Beck and cage fighting to be good television.
Nevertheless, I believe we can create a parade that most Americans will want to join and most politicians will want to lead.
We have a historic challenge, trans-partisan in nature, global in scope, epochal in importance, requiring equal measures of intelligence and morality. Like other presidents in times of cusp and crisis, Obama 2.0 may be able to rally us out of peevishness and help us unify around a transcendent common purpose. If he does not, or if we don’t respond, we are very likely to default to the future we fear.
(Official White House photo)