Liberal pessimism in record time

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

Last week’s announcement that Chicago had failed in its bid for the 2016 Olympics was the latest in a series of missteps by the new Obama administration. As pessimism sinks in and unemployment inches upward, what was the exuberant candidate of 2008 has now turned into the lugubrious president of 2009. Obama has met the reality of the modern political world. How to proceed from here is his choice.

Flashback to last year. For those on campus, there was an electricity that pervaded the entire campus that is only seen after beating USC in football. Students, even those who rarely follow politics, were conversing on the issues of the day and schlepping all the way to Nevada and Florida to make their voice heard.

Although there was a hollowness on Election Day in the face of Prop 8’s success, a well-attended election party at the CoHo capped an exciting campaign. That excitement remained palpable in January when Obama was inaugurated. Even the forgettable, early-morning speech could not deter those watching - or those who secured a ticket to the event - from celebrating a momentous day in American political history.

Seven months later, all the energy and passion on display during the campaign has petered out. Left-wing Democrats complain (almost bitterly) over forgotten promises and disappointing decisions while the center-left anxiously looks ahead to an increasingly gloomy 2010 campaign. Right now, Obama has a critical choice before him: will he be the candidate of his campaign or the president of the last seven months?

If he chooses the former, then he has a lot of work to do. The first issue will invariably be health care. Winning against empowered Republican congressmen, skeptical Blue Dog Democrats and angry town hall participants will require a more populist Obama. The important goal would be to frame the issue away from cost and onto patient health. A full-time campaign schedule throughout the country could draw the spotlight back to him as well.

Following through with his campaign promises, Obama would need to refocus his efforts to close Guantanamo Bay. The process has been too slow and neglected. A high-level push from the chief executive may persuade skeptical nations to take a few inmates, and would shore up his support among the anti-war left without angering the political center. These two actions would bring back some of the energy of the campaign and reset the current situation.

However, this plan is not the right course for the Obama administration. Instead of pandering to the left (a strategy that brought him to this untenable position in the first place), he should remain focused on the bipartisanship he wants to represent.

Health care is the issue of the day, and it is time to get the best deal possible and move on. Health care is a truly messy policy issue, with inordinate complexity filled with pitfalls. Bring down the costs of insurance through better regulation and enforcement of antitrust laws and come back to the issue of universal health coverage when the economy is stronger and premiums are lower.

Obama then needs a series of strong victories to bring the zeitgeist of his campaign back. Focus on school-choice and educational accountability. Push hard for better parity between charter and public schools (as Stanford’s own professor, Caroline Hoxby, has recently shown to be quite beneficial in recent research). Attacking one of his major campaign contributors is a gambit, but one with strong dividends as he moves himself to the political center in the mind of voters.

Next, bring back the discipline of the campaign. When the chief executive has to sit down for a beer summit on the White House front lawn, something is very wrong. When the president goes to lobby an organization, make sure he is not about to be humiliated when his home city is flatly rejected.

Finally, and most importantly, bring back some semblance of focus. The number of issues that demand immediate action is high, but winning every battle, every time is hard when the troops are scattered. The bandwidth of Washington DC is incredibly small - better to do one thing well than to do many and see none of them succeed.

The pessimism of my more liberal friends will not continue forever. A stronger administration with a couple of victories under its belt will surely be more successful in the coming years than one that seems to constantly reach a draw on every issue. Politics is a marathon of tremendous length, and Obama must be the torchbearer. Unfortunately, he will not hold the real one in 2016.