While tout Washington is furiously debating the deal between President Obama and the Republican congressional leadership, it’s time to look ahead. Assume that some form of the deal survives the cross-fire and is enacted into law. What then for the president?
There’s one thing we already know for sure: the agreement will light the fuse on a bomb timed to explode at the height of the 2012 presidential campaign. Unfortunately for Obama, taxation is an issue on which Republicans have long enjoyed an advantage in the court of public opinion, a situation not likely to change anytime soon. On the other hand, the president could not accept a permanent extension of all the Bush tax cuts without destroying the possibility of long-term deficit reduction.
There’s only one way out, which fortunately combines good policy with good politics. Obama should seize the initiative by moving comprehensive tax reform to the center of his agenda. He could argue—correctly, in my view—that the current tax code is far too complex, treats millions of average families unfairly, and constitutes an impediment to economic growth. Building on an emerging bipartisan consensus, he could go on to advocate a plan that broadens the base of the system while reducing rates—a formula that applies to both individual and corporate taxes. And he could challenge both parties to join with him to make a reformed code the law of the land during the 112th Congress.
So conceived and framed, tax reform serves both of the long-term goals—economic growth and fiscal restraint—that Obama must promote as the heart of his domestic agenda. Embracing it would enable him to move back on offense and to become the transformative leader he clearly wants to be. And if he places himself at the head of an initiative with substantial appeal across party lines, he could also begin to redeem the promise of a more cooperative, less confrontational politics that first brought him to national notice and helped him become president.
This is one of many reasons why the 2011 State of the Union address may well be the most important speech of Obama’s presidency. If he is able to chart a new course toward growth and fiscal sanity and back it with specifics—starting but not ending with tax reform—he will improve not only his own prospects, but the nation’s as well. If he does not—if the speech devolves into the kind of routine laundry list that Winston Churchill once dubbed a “themeless pudding”—the chances of gridlock and drift will rise, and so will the prospects of a return to unified Republican governance in 2013.
By the end of January, we’ll find up whether Obama and his advisors have been able to raise their game. The stakes could not be higher, and the time is short.