Obama's Second Chance

The election gave the President some leverage. Can he be creative with it?

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

We have a new year and, apparently, a new Barack Obama. This year's model doesn't mess around. He is tough, resolute, unbending. He forces the Republicans to raise taxes for the first time in 22 years. He says he won't negotiate with the Republicans over their next manufactured crisis, the debt ceiling. He nominates former Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, despite the objections of noisy neoconservatives and the quietly powerful Israel lobby. He seems ready to make aggressive proposals on immigration and gun control.

These are all positive steps. The President has decided that he is, for the moment, in a position of power and, unlike his first-term negotiating style, seems ready to bulldoze his hapless opponents. This has given rise to a fair amount of wailing and teeth-gnashing among Republicans, who've suddenly recognized that they're on the wrong side of demography--but don't seem to realize yet that the public is entirely sick of gimmicks like the debt-ceiling apocalypse. In this, they match the inept Democrats of the 1980s, who were convinced that the election of Ronald Reagan presaged the onset of American fascism. I'll never forget Congressman Dick Gephardt's response to Reagan's "Morning in America" campaign theme: "It's ... midnight and it's getting darker all the time."

It's never midnight in America, but there is too much black humor passing for public policy these days. The darkness was neon in the farcical but sort of serious suggestion, supported by Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, among others, that the President mint a $1 trillion platinum coin and place it in the Treasury, thus eliminating the need to raise the debt ceiling. Krugman said this was "silly but benign," as opposed to the Republicans' silly but noxious efforts to hold the nation's economy hostage by raising the prospect of a U.S. default on outstanding loans. The operative word was silly.

And here I must say a few words about the Democrats. Unlike the Republicans, they live in a recognizable version of America. They do not deny climate change, or evolution, or see urban areas as a foreign country; over the past 30 years, they've been far better at fiscal discipline than Republicans have. But there is a smugness and lassitude to the party right now, an absence of creative new policy thinking, a tendency to defend corroded industrial-age welfare and entitlement programs. They even blocked a modest money-saving change in Social Security's cost-of-living index. And this is where the real challenge of Obama's second term will lie.

"We'll probably only begin to have a serious discussion of health care policy," says Oklahoma's Republican Senator Tom Coburn, "when the costs of doing nothing outweigh the costs of taking action." Coburn has been a profile in courage on long-term deficit issues. He was a member of the Simpson-Bowles commission and was that rare Republican who favored higher revenues long before we reached the fiscal cliff. Talk to Coburn, a practicing physician, for 15 minutes and you'll hear six good ideas about how to make health care better, not just cheaper. But he doesn't sound very optimistic about the chances of having that sort of conversation in Washington right now. He can count on one hand the number of Democrats willing to take the same sort of risks on entitlement spending that he took on revenues.

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