Opinion

The Great Debate

It’s time for the candidates to offer a strong education strategy

In the late 1960s, a Stanford University psychologist began conducting his now famous “marshmallow test” to understand “delayed gratification” – the ability to wait.

He would place a 4-year-old alone in a room with a single delicious marshmallow, promising to give him two marshmallows after a short wait. Some children succumbed to temptation, while others held out for the bigger reward. The children who could control their impulses went on to become better, higher-achieving students.

Why do we bring up this iconic experiment now, in the midst of the 2012 election season?

We believe that helping American children get access to a great education is a two-marshmallow political test. In contrast to relatively quick fixes like even more quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve or temporary deficit spending fiscal policies, addressing the challenges facing U.S. schools and students cannot be achieved over the course of a quarter (or even an election cycle). But underperforming labor markets and the alarmingly high 8.1 percent unemployment rate make the goal of improving our public schools even more obviously critical to America’s future. Making smart fixes to the public education system now, as outlined in our recent Council on Foreign Relations report, will pay off later.

Consider the context: America’s gross domestic product today is at its highest level ever – but we are accomplishing this level of output with about 4.6 million fewer workers than at the top of our last economic expansion. Today, the unemployment rate of people with a college degree or higher is 4.1 percent, compared with 12.7 percent for people with less than a high school degree. Demand at home and globally for low-skilled workers is falling, and the only way to address this long-term trend is through education.

The ‘Yes We Can’ orphans: Obama’s missing constituency

By all accounts, the 2012 presidential election will be a squeaker – probably no more than a point or two in the popular vote will separate the candidates. Such close elections put a special premium on getting one’s base out to vote and targeting the small, yet important, group of “undecided voters”.

We already see both sides doing just this. On the one hand, the undecided voter – about 10 percent of the electorate – is most concerned about “jobs and the economy.” Both Romney and Obama have scrambled over the last month to try to establish credibility on this issue and, in turn, to undermine the credibility of their opponent.

Most analysts define undecideds as self-declared independents or those who have not expressed an opinion at the voting intention question (“unsure”, “refused” or “don’t know” responses). An often overlooked but much more precise way of thinking about this group is to understand them as alienated and disaffected voters – people who voted for one candidate in one election but do not plan to vote for that same candidate next time.

Republicans could join Obama on same-sex marriage

In finally evolving to support marriage equality, President Obama has not only placed himself firmly on the right side of history with respect to an issue of fundamental rights and justice but he has also thrown down the gauntlet for Republicans, especially his presumed challenger, Mitt Romney.

In his comments to ABC News, the president said his attitude toward gay marriage has been shaped over time by voters and members of his own staff “who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together” – who are clearly in love. In other words, the president let the human reality around him shape his personal views and will now lead accordingly – a stark contrast, say, with Mitt Romney, who seems to have little grasp of the struggles and experiences of actual voters and instead rotates his political viewpoints as often as he rotates the cars on his vehicle elevator. In President Obama’s “evolution,” America saw a leader who is not afraid to be wrong and not afraid to change his mind. It’s refreshing.

And now it’s the Republicans’ turn. As Fox News anchor Shepard Smith suggested in reporting the president’s shift, Republicans are “on the wrong side of history.” Indeed. But they have plenty of time to make amends. Republicans should be ashamed enough that theirs is the party that stood in the way of interracial marriage and civil rights. Is that really a legacy the GOP wants to continue into the 21st century? It seems to me the GOP has a choice between courting the open-minded next generation of voters, or continuing to be marred by scandals in which anti-gay Republican after anti-gay Republican is embarrassingly outed and shamed. Apparently this is a tough choice for the GOP, which would rather keep implicitly firing up bigotry than stand firm for equality.

The real reason Romney is struggling with women voters

Back in February, things started to look dire for the Romney campaign’s ability to attract female voters. Every day brought another story about Republican attacks on reproductive rights: attacks on insurance coverage for contraception, transvaginal probes, all-male panels called in Congress to discuss contraception, attacks on Planned Parenthood’s funding, and the candidate himself increasingly afraid to say a positive word about contraception when asked directly in the debates. A gender gap opened up between the candidates in the polls, with Obama outpacing Romney with women by 19 points. The Romney campaign responded by trying to change the subject, to jobs and the economy. But if Romney wants to close the gender gap, he should rethink that strategy. After all, the polling data suggests that his stance on economic issues – specifically the size of the safety net and amount of economic support the government provides to citizens – is what’s really hurting him with female voters.

The real war between the sexes may not be over feminism or sex so much as whether or not our tax dollars should go to social spending. Research conducted by Pew in October 2011 showed women support a strong, activist government in much larger numbers than men. On the question of whether the government should offer more services, women said yes by 9 more percentage points than men. The gender gap on social spending remained when pollsters asked about specific interest groups. Women wanted more spending on the elderly than did men by 11 percentage points, more spending on children by 10 percentage points and more spending on the poor by 9 percentage points.

Female voters respond much more strongly than male voters to government providing pragmatic solutions and real-world support for ordinary citizens, which helps explain why women flock to Obama and to the Democrats in general. In fact, with college-educated white voters, the gender differences are nothing short of astounding. In this group, female voters prefer Obama 60 to 40, and male voters prefer Romney 57 to 39.

What happened to ‘Yes we can’?

At this pivotal moment in the presidential race, President Barack Obama and his re-election team need to focus on a key question that could influence the outcome of this year’s election:

How do they get the “we” back?

Good question. We all remember how Obama broke new ground in the 2008 campaign by using social media as a powerful political tool. Obama’s campaign created an expansive Internet platform, MyBarackObama.com, that gave supporters tools to organize themselves, create communities, raise money and induce people not only to vote but to actively support the Obama campaign. What emerged was an unprecedented force, 13 million supporters connected to one another over the Internet, all driving toward one goal, the election of Obama.

When they chanted “Yes we can,” it wasn’t just a message of hope for the future – it was a confirmation statement of collective power. They weren’t waiting to be told what to do; they were actively engaged, calling friends to come to events, learn what was at stake, contribute ideas, and help out in some way. The power of “we” was awesome to behold. The “we” not only raised hope for people but also unprecedented sums of money for the old-fashioned campaign on the ground.

Larry Summers is playing economic Jeopardy

Editor’s note: This op-ed was originally published at the Financial Times in response to the recent piece by Lawrence Summers for Reuters. It has been republished, verbatim, with the FT‘s permission.

Larry Summers’ considerable intellect suggests that he would be an excellent contestant on the popular game show Jeopardy. Of course, on the show, the question offered by the contestant must match the answer on the board. Summers and I disagree on the answer that matches the question “What is President Obama’s budget?” Let’s see why.

I asked two questions in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. (Neither question was addressed by Mr Summers, or in the simultaneous parallel critiques offered on the airwaves by US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and former Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Austan Goolsbee). The first question was whether the tax increases on high-income individuals proposed by President Obama (the Buffett rule, higher taxes on dividends and capital gains, a higher top marginal rate, and so on) raised enough revenue to materially offset the country’s large budget gap or higher federal spending under President Obama. The answer, using revenue estimates from the Treasury Department and spending estimates from the President’s budget is ‘No’. The second question was what that spending growth implied for future tax rates. That is, if federal spending as a share of gross domestic product was to increase permanently as the president proposes, by how much would taxes need to rise? Answer: a lot and for everyone. This simple thought experiment presumes that we will not ratify permanently larger deficits.

Obama’s power grab at the Pentagon

President Barack Obama’s decision last week to cut the defense budget by $487 billion over the next 10 years was met with cries of derision from his critics (“inexcusable,” said GOP front-runner Mitt Romney) and shrugs of acceptance from his supporters. The reduction’s two headlines: 1. One hundred thousand troops are being chopped from the Marine Corps and Army; 2. The entire U.S. foreign policy focus will begin to shift from the Near East to the Far East (anxieties about China having replaced—or at least settled alongside—our permanently ingrained fears of Middle Eastern terror). The cuts themselves, though, are less significant as fiscal policy than as a statement about President Obama’s relationship with the Pentagon: Barack is taking it over.

That President Obama wasn’t really in charge of the Defense Department might come as something of a shock. He is, after all, the commander in chief. But considering the size of the nation’s defense apparatus, it shouldn’t. The Pentagon has become the 51st state—America’s largest bureaucracy, employing three times more people than the population of Vermont and Wyoming combined. Its capital is the Five-Sided Puzzle Palace, as my journalist friends fondly call it, where 23,000 work daily. Its other residents are the 3.2 million military, intelligence and civilian personnel who live inside its borderless confines around the globe. And since the attacks of September 11th, the influence of the Pentagon’s constituency has grown exponentially, its budget increasing from $295 billion to $549 billion, sucking up some 54 percent of federal tax dollars.

The Pentagon has found plenty of ways to spend all that cash. In 2011, the DoD blew $20.2 billion on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan, equivalent to the entire NASA budget. There are more members of the U.S. military bands—and more sailors on a single aircraft carrier—than in the State Department’s entire foreign service. Up close, the largesse of the Pentagon is hard to miss as well: When top generals visit a country overseas, they often travel in their own private jets, with an entourage of dozens. Top diplomats fly commercial, business–or first-class, if they’re lucky. (Meanwhile, in Foggy Bottom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton forbade business-class travel for State officials traveling to Afghanistan in 2010, citing budgetary concerns, department officials have told me privately.)

from David Rohde:

Yes, we’re creating jobs, but how’s the pay?

Update: The December job numbers released this morning continued the same trend described in yesterday’s column. Of the 200,000 new jobs created last month, 78,000 – or nearly 40 percent -- were in transportation, warehousing and retail, sectors known for low pay and seasonal hiring. In a far more positive sign, manufacturing gained 23,000 workers in December after four months of little change. A vast expansion of that trend would benefit the middle class tremendously.

WASHINGTON -- Between now and November, middle class Americans are going to hear an enormous amount of bragging about job creation.

Mitt Romney will tout his role in the creation of Staples, The Sports Authority and Domino's, three firms that he says created 100,000 jobs. Barack Obama will say 2.9 million jobs have been created since March 2010, and highlight a surge of 140,000 new private sector jobs in November.

from Paul Smalera:

How Obama wins the election: the economy, stupid, and everything else

By Paul Smalera
The opinions expressed are his own. 

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, and the entire Republican presidential field before them, have enjoyed painting Barack Obama as a European-style socialist, an apologizer, an appeaser, a president who is ceding America’s place in the world. Their stump speeches and debate soundbites seem to always end with some variety of the phrase, “when I’m your president, I’ll make America great again.” It would seem the nation is hungry for that kind of leadership; after all, polls now say that Obama’s job approval ratings are worse than Carter’s at the same point in his term. The game clock would seem to be running down on his re-election hopes. But what if it turns out we’ve been reading the scoreboard wrong, and Team Obama already has the lead? What if, by the time Americans get to vote, less than a year from now, America is already great again?

Coming off the heels of a nasty recession and horrible intertwined crises in banking, housing and economic confidence, every decision President Obama and his team made on the country’s way forward has come under intense scrutiny. Inevitably, the left has called some decisions, like the smaller-than-hoped-for size of his stimulus bill, weak sauce. The right has decried everything this administration did, as with health care reform, as lurching us towards socialism. Even Rockefeller Republicans have changed their spots in order to make libertarian arguments, as when Mitt Romney argued in the New York Times that the auto-industry bailout was wrong and Detroit should have been allowed to go broke.

One shouldn’t feel bad for Obama -- this kind of scrutiny comes with the job, after all. But the criticism his administration has endured from all sides has seemed particularly craven, perhaps because the stakes have been so very high these past few years. And yet, the political capital invested in his centrist, negotiated policies are now paying dividends. Perhaps Bill Clinton was a smoother operator, but it’s beginning to look a lot like Obama’s triangulation of policy, politics and the press is working, and that may deliver him to a political comeback and a 1996-style election victory.

from Ian Bremmer:

Romney’s foreign policy: Reagan redux

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

After yet another GOP debate where foreign policy took a near-total backseat to economic and domestic policy, Mitt Romney is in the catbird seat for the nomination. He even locked up the endorsement of Tea Party AND Republican machine favorite, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Romney’s only problem: it’s October 2011. Not one primary has yet taken place. Romney will have to return to his foreign policy platform to expand it, should he be fortunate enough to make it to the general election. And based on the speech he gave at The Citadel, we can already see that Mitt Romney intends to return to the American exceptionalism of the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush eras.

For Romney, as for many politicians of both parties in decades past, the United States is not just a big and powerful country. Rather, it is the only country in the world that deserves superpower status. What’s unfortunate for Mitt and his all-star, Bush-heavy foreign policy team is that, these days, that line of thinking is more nostalgic than realistic. (By the way, though Romney was almost bombastic at times, calling Iran’s leaders “suicidal fanatics,” his actual policies are unlikely to reflect or adopt that tone -- at least not with his foreign policy team as constituted now.) The idea of the U.S. as the leader of the free world is at a post-WWII nadir. However, that’s not because some other country, like China, has risen to fill the vacuum. No, the fault is wholly our own.

In fact, right now there’s a global debate about whether the U.S. really deserves its superpower mantle, given the political and economic issues of recent years that have unquestionably eroded its leadership position. It’s helpful to compare the two camps:

  •