President Barack Obama can spend the remainder of his term planting a few more high-tech hubs, working on reforming the patent law and doing the other modest things he mentioned in his State of the Union address. And if he did that, he might do some marginal good, and he would manage the stately decline of his presidency during its final few years.
Or, alternately, he can realize that he is now at a moment of liberation. For the past five years he has been inhibited by the need to please donors, to cater to various congressional constituencies and to play by Washington rules.
But the legislating phase of his presidency is now pretty much over. During the next few years he will be free to think beyond legislation, beyond fundraising, beyond the necessities of the day-to-day partisanship. He will have the platform and power of the presidency, but, especially after the midterms, fewer short-term political obligations.
This means he will have the opportunity to build what he himself could have used during the past few years: an Opportunity Coalition. He’ll have the chance to organize bipartisan groups of mayors, business leaders, legislators, activists and donors into permanent alliances and institutions that will formulate, lobby for, fund and promote opportunity and social mobility agendas for decades to come.
There are already signs that Obama is stepping back to take the long view. In his interviews with David Remnick of The New Yorker, he observed that the president is “essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids.” You are trying to do your leg and pass things along to the next swimmer. As president, he’s been made aware of how little a president can accomplish unless there is organized support from the outside. Obama now has the chance to build that support for future presidents, on the issues that concern him most.
He might start, for example, by scrambling the current political categories. We now have one liberal tradition that believes in using government to enhance equality. We have another conservative tradition that believes in limiting government to enhance freedom. These two traditions have fought to a standstill and prevented Obama from passing much domestic legislation of late.
But there is a third ancient tradition that weaves through U.S. history, geared directly at enhancing opportunity and social mobility. This is the Whig tradition, which begins with people like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln. This tradition believes in using the power of government to give marginalized Americans the tools to compete in a capitalist economy.
The Whigs fought against the divisive populist Jacksonians. They argued that it is better to help people move between classes than to pit classes against each other. They also transcended our current political divisions.
The Whigs were interventionist in economics while they were traditionalist and family-oriented in their moral and social attitudes. They believed that America should step boldly into the industrial age, even as they championed cultural order. The Whigs championed large infrastructure projects and significant public investments, even as they believed in sacred property rights. They believed in expanding immigration along with assimilation and cohesion.
Obama could travel the country modernizing the Whig impulse, questioning current divisions and eroding the rigid battle lines. More concretely, he could create a group of Simpson-Bowles-type commissions — with legislators, mayors, governors and others brought together to offer concrete proposals on mobility issues from the beginning to the end of the life span:
Is there a way to improve family patterns so disadvantaged young children grow up in more ordered environments? Is there a way to improve Head Start and intelligently expand early childhood education? Is there a way to structure neighborhoods so that teenagers are more likely to thrive? Is there a way to get young men wage subsidies so they are worth marrying? Is there a way to train or provide jobs for unemployed middle-aged workers?
These commissions could issue their reports in the spring of 2016, to make life maximally difficult for the next presidential candidates.
Obama could also credential a different style of public sector leader. If you are trying to pass legislation, you staff your administration with political operatives. But if you are trying to change the discussion and mobilize the country, you hire and promote social entrepreneurs, people from Ashoka, Teach for America, Opportunity International, the International Justice Mission and the Clinton Global Initiative. Once hired in this White House, these people will be filling senior government jobs for decades to come.
Obama began his career as an organizer. His mobility agenda floundered because the governing majority he needed to push it forward does not exist. He has the chance to remedy that, to organize, to convene, to build, and to make life a lot easier for the next swimmer in the race.