One of the most popular pastimes in the history of politics has got to be counseling a winner. After all, what do you say to the loser? Except: Go home. With a respectful nod to my main influence here, progressive economist Robert Kuttner's ballsy new book, here's counsel for president-elect Barack Obama.
First: You know that thing Bill Clinton did for eight years, that "triangulation" thing? Forget it. It doesn't work. You'll just validate conservatives and alienate progressives. Republicans "have been clear and unequivocal in having a core set of principles, and in taking political risks to advance it," writes Kuttner. Copy them.
Second: Educate. FDR described the financial crisis in one of his most famous fireside chats: where government regulation had gone wrong, how new laws would help, and what ordinary people could do. Leaders' jobs consist of "staking out a position not held by a majority of voters, and bringing the people around," writes Kuttner, describing how Lyndon B. Johnson in his finest moments framed the civil rights movement as quintessentially American. When told early in his term that he ought not waste political capital on the divisive issue, he replied, "Hell, what's the presidency for?"
You might start by telling us what you know: that the economy isn't working. If the hundreds of millions of private financial crises going on in households across America can be described as a public crisis, "a national disgrace amenable to national remediation," then we're getting somewhere.
Third: Spend lots and lots of money. Think trillions. As credit dries up and pink slips arrive, a significant federal outlay can keep us from another Great Depression. You're said to have pledged to blue-dog Democrats that you'd be a pay-as-you-go kind of president, offseting a spending program here with a budget cut there. A Republican president can spend eight years battering the treasury with warfare and tax cuts, but a Democrat must approach this crisis weighed down with a conservative fiscal tenet? Break that promise.
From professionalizing the human service sector to managing the labor market, Kuttner's proposals are forcefully argued and often persuasive. Finished this summer, this little book's gutsy timing is its greatest asset. Now that its subject is certain to take office, it's supremely relevant. And if the outcome had been different? At least the publisher used recycled paper.