Wasting Warren Buffet
Watching this campaign unfold reaffirms how much it would have benefited from a serious, centrist third-party challenger. It would have been so clarifying to have an independent voice calling out Mitt Romney for running a campaign that consists of decrying the last three and a half years of the Obama presidency, while offering to reinstate the very same failed policies that made the eight years of George W. Bush a disaster that President Barack Obama has spent most of his time cleaning up. And it would have been equally clarifying to have an independent challenger calling out Obama for failing to put a credible, specific economic plan on the table — at the scale of our problem — but relying instead on a campaign that amounts to a series of discrete appeals to each of the Democratic Party constituencies. It feels like a ground war with no air cover.
But there will be no third-party candidate, so the only hope is getting Obama to raise his game. To do that, the president needs to recognize just how badly he wasted Warren Buffett — using him for a two-week, wedge-issue sugar high.
Obama got Buffett to endorse the “Buffett Rule” — a minimum tax rate of 30 percent for any individual who makes more than $1 million a year so that all millionaires have to pay a higher tax rate than their secretaries. The plan had no chance of passing, would have made only a small dent in the deficit and was rightly decried by experts as a gimmick that only diverted attention from what we really need: comprehensive tax reform that can substantially raise revenue in a fairer manner. The Buffett Rule has largely faded away.
What a waste of Warren Buffett’s credibility.
Buffett is a businessman out to make a profit. But he is respected by many as a straight-talking nonpartisan — someone who can “call the game.” What the president should have done is follow the advice of the Princeton University economist and former Fed Vice Chairman Alan Blinder, namely lay out a specific “three-step rehab program for our nation’s fiscal policy.” Call it the Obama Plan; it should combine a near-term stimulus on job-creating infrastructure, a phase-in, as the economy improves, of “something that resembles the 10-year Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan — which would pay for the stimulus 15-20 times over” and a specific plan to “bend the health care cost-curve downward.” Obama has offered the first; he still has not risen to the second, and the third would be an easy extension of his own health care plan.
Obama needs a second look from independents who could determine this election. To attract that second look will require a credible, detailed recovery plan that gets voters to react in three ways: 1) “Now that sounds like it will address the problem, and both parties are going to feel the pain.” 2) “That plan seems fair: The rich pay more, but everyone pays something.” 3) “Wow, Obama did something hard and risky. He got out ahead of Congress and Romney. That’s leadership. I’m giving him a second look.”
I’d bet anything that if the president staked out such an Obama Plan, Buffett and a lot of other business leaders would endorse it. It would give the GOP a real problem. After all, what would help Obama more right now: Repeating over and over the Buffett Rule gimmick or campaigning from now to Election Day by starting every stump speech saying: “Folks, I have an economic plan for America’s future that Warren Buffett and other serious business leaders endorse — and Mitt Romney doesn’t.”
Obama loyalists often say: “Those Republicans are so bad. They’ve tried to block us at every turn.” Yes, the GOP has tried to stymie Obama; it’s been highly destructive. But the people who keep pointing that out don’t have an answer for the simplest next question: Why have they gotten away with it?
My view: It’s because too many Americans in the center-left/center-right do not feel in their guts that Obama is leading — is offering an economic plan at the scale of the problem that has a chance for bipartisan support and that makes them want to get up out of their chairs and do battle. Our situation is different from four years ago; people want to know the president has a plan for getting out of this mess.
When the Grand Bargain talks with John Boehner fell apart, Obama retreated to his base when he should have rallied the center by laying out — in detail — the Grand Bargain the country needs. That would have forced Romney to speak in detail about his plan — the Paul Ryan plan — and reveal it for what it is: a radical plan that few Americans would embrace if they understood it.
Then people would see a real choice: a tough-minded-but-centrist plan with real bipartisan support versus a radical plan to gut Medicare, give more tax cuts to the wealthy and drastically shrink discretionary spending so eventually nothing is left for education, veterans, roads, research, the FBI or the poor.
And the morning after that happens — when Warren Buffett endorses the Obama Plan, not just the Buffett Gimmick — the president will have his mojo back.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.