The President of the United States [as imagined by the columnist]:
Good afternoon. Well, we got thumped. I’m disappointed, but I continue to believe that our actions were necessary and correct. The stimulus spending helped avert a second Great Depression. The health care legislation offers the dual promise of extending coverage and controlling costs. Financial regulatory reform will protect the U.S. economy from private-sector recklessness.
That’s a lot—but I heard you loud and clear.
First, we didn’t do enough. Unemployment would have been even higher without the stimulus, but it is unacceptably high. We’ve had nine consecutive months of private-sector job growth, and we’re going to keep at it for as long as I’m privileged to be your president.
Second, we did, for some of you, too much—too much spending, too much sweeping legislation. It was unsettling. Every day it seemed we were writing another huge check. I’m convinced, again, that this was wisely spent. The much maligned bailout will cost a fraction of the initial expense—and it saved communities across the country from economic devastation. The stimulus created jobs—and, by the way, provided more than $200 billion in tax relief. The health care bill carries a big price tag—but I insisted that the cost be fully paid for. I will resist—with my veto pen—any effort to weaken the law that adds to the deficit.
Nevertheless, the era of big check-writing is over. That is why—after some Republicans voted against creating a deficit commission—I did so by executive order. I look forward to receiving their report—and working with Republicans to tackle the debt. And that is why I have been so determined not to rack up another $700 billion in debt by permanently extending the tax cuts for the wealthiest.
Third, I did not live up to my own standards for governing in a post-partisan manner. I was wrong to use the term enemies. I’m not going to offer excuses or point fingers. Instead, let me describe what I’ll do differently.
It’s time to stop talking at the other party and start talking with them. Instead of a weekly video address and canned response, I propose a televised meeting with a designated Republican to discuss the issues of the day. Let’s do that at the White House every other week. In alternate weeks, I’ll go to their place. I’ll go to the Capitol for “question time” from members of Congress, Republican and Democrat. This was John McCain’s idea, and it was a good one.
But talk isn’t enough. I’ll take the risk of going first, with proposals on health care and taxes. Many Republicans argue that the risk of malpractice suits drives up costs by leading doctors to practice defensive medicine. I agree. It’s not popular with some Democrats, but I’ll be sending to the new Congress a proposal to shield doctors from frivolous lawsuits. While we’re at it, let’s fix the provision in the new law that imposes onerous reporting requirements on small business.
On taxes, I disagree with Republicans that we can afford to extend the upper-income tax cuts permanently or that it would threaten the recovery to let them lapse now. But there’s space for compromise. We both agree on permanently extending tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans. Extending tax cuts for the wealthiest for two years would cost $75 billion. I think that money could better be spent in ways that would help ordinary Americans: reinstating a program to subsidize private sector jobs for low-income parents. Creating a national infrastructure bank to modernize our fraying infrastructure—free from political considerations and earmarking—and front-loading the spending to create jobs. Still, if Republicans think tax cuts for the wealthy are a wiser choice, I’m open to a brief extension.
This is just a start. We should join forces to renew and strengthen the education reform law that brought a new era of school accountability. We should put Social Security on a solid financial footing—while not cutting benefits for those who need the program most. We could, as John Boehner has suggested, scour the tax code for wasteful spending programs disguised as tax breaks.
In the unhappy aftermath of another Election Day, an American president offered some wise words. “Our task,” he said, “is to be sure our leaders do not fail the American people.” Ronald Reagan was right. To my fellow patriots across the aisle: Let’s win one for the Gipper.
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.