As President Obama prepared to address the country’s dire employment and economic prospects, it was hard not to recall the Onion’s satirical headline after his 2008 victory: “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.” Whatever change we were hoping for, it’s not coming quickly enough.
As this newspaper’s editorial stated last week, Obama has invested — too much, in retrospect — in bipartisanship. He has asked his legislative leaders to craft solutions to the nation’s problems, only to see their Congressional adversaries dilute, derail and deride those solutions.
Obama’s advisers could use a refresher course in high school civics. Three successful presidencies of the past half century can also point the way.
The president is not the legislator-in-chief. His job is to enforce laws, not create them. The power of the presidency is to command, convene, cheer and comfort. The president commands more than the military. He also can command our attention. He can summon our imagination.
President Kennedy stated that America would put a man on the moon before his decade ended. The plan included no incentives for propulsion laboratories, or enhanced astronaut training funds. He staked his claim for the decade. Presidents can do that.
It was a vision, a crystallization of American ambition and ideals. The leader led, and the people followed, including the people who write legislation. Obama’s not the first to deal with a recalcitrant Congress. The United States Congress is an institution, based mostly on seniority. But the presidency is a person.
President Clinton recognized and exploited the institutional bias embedded in Congress by “triangulating” — taking centrist positions that would be untenable for members of Congress to oppose. Obama can triangulate in a different way, bypassing the hierarchy that organizes Congress.
The cataclysms that collectively are known as the Great Recession have replaced our hierarchal systems of job security with a meritocracy. We reward those who get better, not those who stay longer. Unemployment has risen, but American worker productivity has risen faster.
While construction industries have declined precipitously, a few home builders in each market are busier than they’ve ever been. Office workers are being replaced with technology, except those who have mastered those technologies are getting raises and promotions. The University of Oregon and Peace Health each made headlines recently by giving raises to their most prized employees.
In this New Economy, those at the top — in skill as well as income — are rising faster. President Obama represents the pinnacle of that meritocracy.
He should invite a legislator each week to share his Saturday radio address. The president can elevate good ideas, regardless of political leanings. Stop talking about bipartisanship. Do it, instead. Those with seniority on Capitol Hill won’t like it, and that’s just the point.
The Saturday presidential address was a privilege invented by a third U.S. president.
President Reagan knew how to use executive power. Faced daunting unemployment in his first term, he didn’t think like a legislator. He reasoned that every American soldier was also an American with a job. The military population, by executive decree, was added to the employment numbers and the unemployment rate fell by .2 percent overnight. If the president doesn’t like the rules, he often can change them.
American workers are more productive and efficient than ever. Many who have work are getting too much of it. Everyone would like a solution that celebrates our strengths and distributes our burden. The President of the United States can claim a decade, can announce a moon shot. But not if Americans think he’s “mailing it in.”
“Mailing it in” has stopped working, literally. Technology has replaced “snail mail” and the United States Postal Service response has been slow. Without a bailout or significant structural changes, mail delivery could cease this winter.
The president can reframe the situation as the “new normal.” Declare an end to Saturday delivery, and prepare the country for reduced government services on Wednesdays.
Within a decade, let’s reduce the American work week to 32 hours, and bring millions back into the work force. The president’s political opponents want smaller government. Can they campaign against three-day weekends?
We need a president who sees 2020. Clear vision comes from the top.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.