Obama’s performance as president has often lacked this decisive, strategic quality. The notes are there but not the policy “music.” In both foreign and domestic policy, the impression of Obama, after his blunderbuss, first-year battles on health care and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, has been of a careful president who reacts to events, waits for others to make the first moves and plays to avoid losing rather than to win.
Well, Mr. President, what the hell’s the presidency for?
A strategic second term would begin by identifying a list of necessary and achievable goals, and then pursuing them with the unyielding manipulative skill of a Lyndon Johnson. On the top of everybody’s list would be a budget deal. Everybody knows, more or less, what it will require: changes in Social Security and Medicare that slow the growth of entitlement spending; reform of the tax code that produces a fairer and simpler system that raises revenue without limiting growth.
A road map is there in the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan, and Obama administration officials have been thinking privately for months about how to tweak the plan so it’s better and fairer. Mitt Romney’s generous concession speech Tuesday night opened a possible door, and the president should follow up his statement that he will “look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.” The president and his new Treasury secretary (Jack Lew?) should take the next step and ask Romney to help close the budget deal the country needs.
In foreign policy, Obama will need to be equally strategic. What does he want to accomplish? My list: a deal with Iran that verifiably limits its nuclear program and avoids war; a deal in Afghanistan that averts civil war when U.S. forces leave in 2014; a deal for a political transition in Syria (a shorthand Syria summary would be to organize the opposition so that it’s strong enough to bargain, then help win a Nobel Peace Prize for Vladimir Putin). And, finally, a deal to create a Palestinian state so that Israel has secure borders and the Arab world can get on with the process of becoming modern and democratic.
All these primary foreign policy goals are “deals,” and it follows that the president needs a dealmaker as secretary of state. Who could do that, after Hillary Clinton leaves, probably at the end of January? John Kerry is an experienced man who thinks outside the box and is willing to take risks. Even if the president is said to have found him somewhat windy as the stand-in for Romney during debate preparation, Kerry has shown over the past four years a willingness to negotiate with adversaries, in secret, to achieve results.