Even more than the current presidential approval rating of 48 percent, Republican Senator-elect Scott Brown’s morning-after celebration just one year to the day after Barack Obama took the oath of office tells us that something has gone wrong with the President’s governing strategy.
Some things have been beyond White House control: economic recession, fiscal deficits, unpopular bank bail-outs, the collapse of talks in Copenhagen, and Chicago’s failure to get the Olympics, for instance.
But imagine if Obama had delivered the following inauguration speech:
“My fellow Americans, major changes in health sector policy are critically important, but they cannot be introduced until we get our economy going again. We must put that reform to one side for the moment and focus instead on our schools. A powerful, dynamic economy cannot be achieved unless we educate every American to their highest potential. Until we educate our citizens, nothing else will matter.
“I am calling on all Americans to help restore our schools so that they are second to none. I am asking students, parents, teachers, school districts and state officials to help me in this great undertaking.
“I am also asking Congress to appropriate, over the next two years, $150 billion that will help states and localities create a dynamic education system that serves all Americans, most especially the many disadvantaged young people living in our inner cities. To receive federal funds, states and school districts will be required to revamp the way in which they train, compensate, and retain teachers so that teachers are rewarded for demonstrating their ability to improve student performance. Those teachers that cannot produce must retool or prepare for another job.
“My administration will ask states to create new charter schools free of standard regulation so that alternative strategies can be developed and families can be given a choice of school. Those schools that cannot perform will be redesigned or closed down.
“My secretary of education will ask every school to provide detailed information to the public on the learning that is taking place in their classrooms. And he will ask every state to set standards that every high school graduate must meet, if they are to receive their diploma.”
President Obama would have suffered trenchant criticism from the left wing of his party, and teacher unions would have hunkered down for a bitter fight. But such political costs would have been swamped by bipartisan support, a general sense that Obama was going to govern from the center, and an understanding that the nature of American politics was about to be transformed, just as Obama had promised in his campaign.
Fiscally, the strategy would have cost no more than what the Obama administration is in fact planning to spend within the first two years. And the policies themselves are little other than what the Obama administration is saying it wants to do as part of its Race to the Top initiative.
But had education and economic recovery, not health care, been placed at the center of the president’s domestic agenda, Obama would be enjoying an approval rating in the sixties instead of the forties—and Martha Coakley would be looking for a house in Washington.
Even now, pursuing such a strategy could strengthen the Administration’s political position. Time is running out, but as they say, late’s better than never.