Why Obama Can't Offer a Real Second-Term Plan

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With his favorite ideas stalled, the president has almost no room to maneuver on policy -- which puts him a political pickle.

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Reuters

After weeks of criticism for not laying out a second-term agenda -- from both the right and the left -- the Obama campaign finally dropped their plan for the next four years Tuesday morning: 20 pages of beautiful photos and summaries of the president's accomplishments over the last four years.

Oh, right, and there were some policy ideas in there too -- but not many, and not much new. Here's a quick summary of the main points, which you can read in full here:

  • Manufacturing: Add skills training programs, reform the corporate tax code, create "a new network of 15 to 20 manufacturing innovation institutes."
  • Energy: Expand oil exploration and drilling; invest in domestic coal and renewable energy sources; improve fuel economy; extend clean-energy; aim to have 80 percent of electricity from clean sources by 2035.
  • Small Business Growth: Tax credits for new hiring or increased wages; implement Obamacare tax credits for insurance coverage.
  • Education: Cut tuition growth in half in 10 years; recruit new teachers; "strengthen public schools."
  • Taxes: Raise taxes on the wealthy; implement the Buffett Rule; save money by ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • Health Care: This section simply restates what Obamacare does.
  • Entitlements: Oppose privatization and voucher schemes; implement Obamacare.

Derek Thompson wrote this morning, "Obama's entire second-term agenda is apparently to protect his first-term agenda. That's not awful. It might even be defensible. But it's hardly inspiring." There are, actually, some things in here that are not established law, but they're not new. To choose a couple at random, the Buffet Rule dates to September 2011; the 80 percent clean-energy bar was rolled out in the January 2011 State of the Union.

Voters aren't content with just nibbling, and they want to hear a fresh plan -- or at least Obama's advisers seem to accept that they do. The ideas he's pushed over the last two years -- love them or hate them -- have been bottled up in a do-nothing Congress. To a certain extent, he's the victim of his own success, since he achieved two of his major goals for his first term: health-care reform and financial reform. Even if neither finalized law is as strong as he might like them, there's no appetite to revisit them, and the only way to guarantee that they are implemented is to win a second term over a man who's vowed to repeal both. Climate change, which Obama might like to achieve, is dead on arrival. That leaves him to reiterate these goals again.

From a political standpoint, that's an obvious weakness. But from a policy standpoint, it's hard to imagine what Obama's critics would have him do. Presumably he still believes that those proposals -- middle-class tax breaks, tax hikes for the wealthy, job training, etc. -- are the best answers to the problems facing America. Tacking left would be less popular, and Obama might well disagree with more liberal solutions. Tacking right would also force Obama to campaign for ideas he doesn't believe in. So instead the president has little to offer besides a glossy repackaging, a wing, and a prayer.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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