A president who has been pondering that question for a while might find the best answers by consulting what just went on in the campaign.
He should not be afraid to consider the hopes and expectations of the people who voted for him since he offered his supporters both explicit and implicit promises. But he should also think about the worries of those who voted against him. It turns out that the two groups have more in common than we (or they) might imagine.
And Obama doesn’t have to do anything at all to profit from the enormous, well, gift he was given by Mitt Romney when his erstwhile opponent explained his defeat by referring to the “extraordinary financial gifts from the government” that Obama allegedly handed out to his “base.”
Because so many Republicans felt compelled to renounce Romney’s alibi, they had to break with the talk-show far right that actually sees the election just this way. In principle, at least, Republicans had to say they accept the idea that government measures aimed at lifting up a variety of Americans are not bribes for particular groups of “takers.” They are measures designed to serve the common good. The GOP thus moved toward a political language more like Obama’s own. This alone could ease the harsh polarization that characterized the last four years.
Obama should take that opening to relieve an anxiety felt across the partisan and ideological divides. For much of the last decade, Americans of very different stripes have been haunted by the fear that our country is in decline. If Obama is looking for a single, unifying objective, it should be to make sure that by the time he leaves office, the vast majority of Americans will have abandoned their declinist fears. He should want conservatives and Republicans, no less than liberals and Democrats, to perceive their nation as on the move again.
Declinism is an old American habit. We have a high opinion of ourselves, so we always suspect we are in a place from which we can decline. And some of the current worries are a rational response to a reconfiguration of economic power toward Asia (and, eventually, toward Latin America). But the rest of the world can become more prosperous without the United States losing its influence or its standing. Whether we decline or not depends almost entirely on—us.
The ability to put our government’s finances in order for the long run is obviously part of getting back on our national game. We simply cannot afford four more years of fiscal stalemate. But how we achieve balance matters.
If there is one pledge Obama made over and over, it is that he will tend to the rise of economic inequality, a drop in the living standards of many working Americans, the loss of well-paying jobs—especially in manufacturing—and curtailed access to higher education.
Across ideological lines, Americans stuck in this downward spiral experience decline not as an abstract issue but as a reality in their own lives. They ask why it is that the country seemed to do a better job of spreading opportunity around 40 years ago than it does now.
Speeding the general economic recovery will solve some of these problems, but Obama needs an unapologetically large and unified program of economic uplift, including policies on taxes, education, training and regional development. He should also look to how new approaches to innovation, unionization, immigration, trade, research and science can contribute to both growth and justice.
Obama has already talked about elements of such a program but he needs to go bigger, pull the pieces together and make the New Prosperity the central objective of his second term.
Restoring hope at home—yes, hope is still a good word—would undergird a more realistic foreign policy that is already pivoting from the obsessions of the last decade to the real challenges America faces for the rest of this century. Promoting shared growth at home should be part of an effort to establish a peaceful global system based not only on trade but also on a wider diffusion of the fruits of commerce and technology.
Conservatives and liberals will still be battling each other in 2016. But if the arguments take place in a more confident and optimistic country, they will be simultaneously more constructive and a good deal less nasty. Obama’s task is to get us there.