They say the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. The Obama White House has a serious problem and it's that the federal government is not only dysfunctional but also unlikely to change for at least a decade.
So it's time for President Obama to admit, at least to himself, that he probably isn't going to accomplish much further domestically during his presidency. But that doesn't mean he can't accomplish anything else major as president.
In fact, with more than three years left, Obama can still accomplish a great deal for the country. But it requires lifting his sights – and the nation's – beyond the immediate debates over the budget and debt ceiling that have bedeviled, and will continue to bedevil, much of his tenure.
It's not that the budget issues – with their underlying debate over the nature of government, the future of entitlements and our society's commitment to the less fortunate – aren't important. But nothing meaningful will be resolved on any of these issues anytime soon, even with a government shutdown or, the next big crisis, a default. The parties are too far apart, Obama's opponents have no real interest in reaching an accommodation, the public is confused by, bored with and tired of these debates, and the way most states were gerrymandered in the congressional redistricting following the tea party election of 2010 means that we are likely to see divided government until after the next redistricting in 2022.
So meaningful resolution of these, or any, issues likely will not occur for a decade. Further attention will do nothing to resolve them – meanwhile, they are distracting both the president and the country from the even more vital issues that need to be addressed.
Obama, in fact, took office with a fairly well-defined agenda for addressing these larger concerns. It consisted of three major elements that still form the core of what the country needs to do to meet the challenges of the 21st Century: (1) Invest in the human capital – through improved education and training – that America needs to outcompete the rest of the world for high-paying jobs. (2) Restore the infrastructure needed to connect every part of America with the global economy to make our businesses the most competitive in the world. (3) Position our economy to move in the long-term away from such heavy reliance on the high-carbon fuels that are degrading the planet, leaving us dependent upon foreign sources controlled by dictatorial regimes and siphoning off more and more of our money.
Together, these represent a coherent conception of what the United States needs in order to remain, economically, the strongest nation on earth. They also have one other thing in common: They all involve "public goods," activities that benefit everyone indivisibly and more-or-less equally, producing benefits for society as a whole – a more productive workforce, increased mobility of people and goods, greater national security – that are difficult if not impossible to capture monetarily (known as "externalities").
In other words, these are classic cases for government involvement and public provision; if there's anything that we can agree on government doing anymore as a society, these would be the best-cases.
Very simply, President Obama needs to focus his remaining time in office back on his original agenda of transforming the backbone of the U.S. economy in order to maintain American preeminence and American families' livelihoods in the 21st Century. While he's at it, yes, Obama could also put forward a serious plan for dealing with the growth of entitlement spending and reducing the growth of federal debt over the next few decades.
Of course, liberals insist the president go nowhere near those subjects since conservatives pocket any concessions as merely a starting point for more. But since there's little chance of reaching any agreement on these issues, like all others, Obama's real challenge is no longer to figure out how to negotiate successfully with Republicans but rather to advance the American public's understanding of these issues, the necessity of addressing them, and the best path for doing so.
There is really no set of issues more important to the country's future. If we are going to be the home of high-paying jobs – not just for a small number of financiers and entertainment superstars, but also for the vast majority of Americans as in the heyday of the middleclass manufacturing economy – then we will have to improve dramatically the quality of our educational and job-training systems. We will need to reinvest in the roads, bridges, rails and airports that we have ignored for the past several decades. And we will need to transition to lower-cost, domestic and cleaner sources of energy – from which a governmental standpoint means, again, building the needed infrastructure more than subsidizing or "betting on" industries and companies.
We need new approaches on all these issues, and many of these will undoubtedly involve new kinds and levels of involvement by the private sector. But no-one who is serious about addressing these "public goods" challenges can honestly contend that simply abandoning all "government" is the way to do so.
Meanwhile, a growing economy will help reduce the impact of our existing levels of debt, and it's the only way we're realistically going to be able to pay the entitlement benefits we've promised the Baby Boomers. Everything going on now in Washington is just shadow-boxing – not simply because of its superficial dysfunctionality but more because it doesn't address the truly deep challenges the nation faces in order to maintain the greatness we all cherish.
We need to turn the national debate to America's future. If there's one job President Obama has proven he relishes, it's professor-in-chief. He might just be in the right place at the right time for that: If he really wants to have a lasting and valuable impact on the nation's future, it's time for the president to run away from the circus and take us all back to school.