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Unity After Victory

President Barack Obama delivers a statement in the East Room of the White House on the mission against Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The moment Bush squandered could be Obama's opportunity

It was Professor-in-Chief Barack Obama who killed Osama bin Laden. The day before the Navy SEALs went in, Obama the Lecturer finished his one-liners at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner with an admonition to his guests to stay focused on serious business. What he did not explain to them Saturday night became known on Monday morning: that success in taking bin Laden out was not the result of a technological magic act or a drone strike, but was only achieved through extraordinary patience, discipline, inter-agency coordination, and tight secrecy.

This should be the great clarifying event in American politics. The Republican attack machine might well still try to market doubt about Obama’s American identity, doubt about the role of government in our lives, and doubt about whether the country’s economic future is secure. But now, with a definitive military success—after almost a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq in which nothing definite seems to have been achieved except Saddam Hussein’s demise—Democrats might have a chance at unity. And so may the country.

It may be that Obama will be the first president since Jimmy Carter to ask the country for shared sacrifice in confronting a national crisis. We can hope that a national call to action will come about without Osama bin Laden’s disciples first taking some ugly retaliatory action. But if there is such an event, you can double your bet on Obama’s call coming.

What he should ask for

Immediately after the Western democracies dug into their treasuries to bail out the big banks and thus stabilize the global financial system, American financial elites began funding the Right. Investment bankers and hedge-fund managers have recently made no secret about their antipathy to Obama for his call, now renewed, to raise taxes on high-income individuals. Mega-speculators are especially incensed that there has been talk, even in Obama’s deficit-reduction commission, about taking away the preferential treatment of capital gains, which is what happened back in the 1986 tax reform. The highest tax rate on ordinary income today is 35 percent. But the highest tax rate on income from the sale of stocks, bonds, real-estate, or other assets—including the portfolios of hedge-fund billionaires—is 15 percent. Obama has said that he wants to change that. The speculators like Republicans better, because the GOP line, endlessly repeated, is that the 15 percent capital gains rate is all about “small business.”

Taxing the richest people in America might seem disconnected from issues of national security. But of course these issues are intimately connected. America has no draft, so the burden of fighting these long, protracted, undeclared wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and now Libya falls squarely on the working-class boys and girls who see military service as the surest pathway to economic security in their deindustrialized country. That’s how the “volunteer” armed forces recruit, and that’s what recruits want. They’re the only people in America, besides unionized public-sector workers, who get the benefits that Canadians, Britons, and other European members of our NATO alliance get as a matter of national birthright: publicly funded healthcare, education, and job training. In our country, there is a war of the investor class—a war waged by Republicans and often by Democrats, too—on the class whose sons and daughters fight our wars. Making a national policy of getting the investor class to foot more of the bill for those wars would be a gesture toward spreading the burden to those who can best afford it.

Obama, surprisingly, is willing to take on that fight. What makes him a prospect for being the first president since Jimmy Carter to ask for shared sacrifice is that he is willing to ask rich investors to pay more taxes to fund our wars, like the one he just won against Osama bin Laden. But the ask should not stop there—for why have these wars been fought? You know the answer: America has been engaged in wars to secure energy supplies. We and our NATO allies fight oil wars. The next presidential ask should be for the country as a whole to get busy on many fronts, immediately, with a renewed sense of urgency, on what Carter asked us to do more than 30 years ago—to declare what he called “the moral equivalent of war” on imported oil.

Energy conservation, renewables, and alternative low-carbon sources of power will cost everybody. Not only are there no guarantees of success, but the prospects of failure are everywhere. Worse, because government programming will be involved in getting these alternative energy sources going, there will inevitably be corruption and waste and stupidity. The ethanol program is the best example of all three—ethanol being such an egregious fraud that even the Wall Street Journal opines against it.

A consensus to strive for

Obama was patient about bin Laden. He was also patient in trapping Republicans. After the 2010 elections, Obama sent a political message that drove progressives crazy: He conceded and conceded and then he pre-emptively conceded some more. Some of us sought deep-seated psychopathologies as the reason Obama caved in on extending the Bush tax cuts on America’s richest two percent. Some opined that Obama was terrified, as a mixed-race person, of conflict that might make him lose his temper, so that he would go from being the man of the center to a man of the fringe. Some of us missed just how subtle and smart and tough-minded this guy really is, because what he seems to have done is the following: He gave the appearance of abandoning his Left base, which emboldened the adventurers on the Right to burst forward with their over-reaching budget plan, which pledged even more tax relief for the haves and the have-mores, explicitly at the expense of Medicare and Medicaid—and then he pounced. Obama waited until the Republicans trapped themselves with their own votes. One does not have to be all that well versed in politics to understand that old white people, whose votes Obama did not win in 2008, are now part of his coalition. Tea Party adherents who loathe him for being black need only be reminded that it is Republicans who are on the Congressional record as being out to wreck their Medicare; chances are better than ever that they will either support Obama because he supports Medicare, or that they will simply not vote, thus depriving Republicans of their once-reliable base.

By being disciplined and patient and lucky, too, in having arrogant opponents with tin ears, Obama won the opinion war, such that moderate- and low-income seniors now want the rich to pay more taxes. By being disciplined and patient and surrounding himself with smart people instead of ideologues, Obama got Osama bin Laden.

The 2012 agenda is in formation before your very eyes. Social Security will be untouched. Medicare may require an additional tax in order to keep it solvent, but if solvency is described as shared sacrifice, it will win. The higher tax rates on millionaires, and a restored estate tax, are now, for the first time in a generation, emerging as consensus items. Consensus on ending the foreign wars encompasses everybody from Ron Paul on the looney Right to Lockport’s own Stephanie Miller on hilarious Lefty radio. Republicans will be left to plead the cases nobody wants to hear: cutting Medicare by turning it into a voucher program, cutting student grants and loans at a time when family income is stagnant or falling, cutting taxes for investors when super-majorities want them to pay more.

What the national unity consensus agenda lacks is an aspirational item. That item needs to be energy. The sooner Obama offers it, the better—because it’s the issue that can credibly be said to save us from worry about the next bin Laden. And though local and state politics always lag the national trends, 2011 elections for local offices, and statewide campaigns by governors, could set the stage for 2012 in exactly the way that the special election to fill Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat set the stage for Bill Clinton in 1994, The aspirational issue then was healthcare reform. It motivated Democrats in Pennsylvania and alerted them nationwide. Democrats all over, had they but a president to lead them, could spend 2011 pushing progressive agendas on energy, green infrastructure, tax progressivity and the local equivalent of funding National Public Radio. The moment is upon us. Let’s hope that the coming appeal to national unity is bold enough to inspire, for as the comedian at the White House Correspondents Dinner had it, the only candidate who could beat Obama 2012 is Obama 2008.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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