The American people have a fundamental choice of which direction to take the country. It is clear that President Obama and the eventual Republican nominee, as well as their respective parties, have very different values.
Values-based leadership is most effective, because everybody speaks the language of values. While the American people may not understand every nuance of the annual budget, or any of the host of complicated policies that the government handles, they do understand that our country and our government should be guided by something greater than any individual group, class, or person. This is where the debate over values comes in.
Part of the Tea Party’s appeal in the 2010 midterm elections was rooted in the contrast of “principled” challengers against an incumbent class widely perceived as cynical, calculating, and narcissistic. People across the country have a strong sense of what they believe, and value leaders with similar conviction. This election should be about what the country believes, and how the president can translate that into effective leadership.
The choice could not be clearer. On one side, we have the new Republican Party, now dominated by a class of conservatives willing to raise taxes on working people by ending the payroll tax holiday, yet will not even consider raising the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest tax payers. However, their claims about taxes are legitimate according to their values. They want to do what they think is best for an unrestrained free market, no matter the consequences, because this is where they believe the benefits can be shared by all people
History tells us a very different story than the Republicans would hope. According to the Center for American Progress, in the past 6 decades, the top marginal tax rate has ranged from 28% to 92%. When the top marginal tax rate was between 75 and 80%, the United States boasted an annual economic growth rate of over 4.5%, whereas when the top tax rate was 35%, the annual growth rate was less than 2%. Throughout the past 60 years, a lower top marginal tax rate has never translated into greater economic growth. In fact, in years when tax rates were high, growth was double that of times when taxes were lower.
While the wealthy’s taxes have gone down and their fortunes have skyrocketed, wages for middle and lower income Americans have stagnated. What’s more, huge corporations are laying off workers and shipping jobs overseas at an alarming rate. Is this really what we hoped America would become?
Our leaders must confront the reality of what has happened since the Reagan Revolution ushered in a center-right political era in America. Things are not better for the public at large, because our government and our free market have lost sight of those values that matter most, our community values.
The conservative values of individualism, personal responsibility, and self-reliance have been translated into a regressive dogma that aims to grow the economy by growing the wealth of the leaders of big business. The quality of life for middle-and-lower class Americans has decreased drastically since President Reagan came into office and conservatism triumphed politically. We have seen some economic growth, but this has primarily benefited the most well-off among us.
This election, President Obama should frame the issues in the contrast of his principles and values versus the Republican Party’s. Obama must speak the language of the American people, and detail his beliefs once again. For those who are familiar with President Obama and his philosophy, he believes very strongly in expanding opportunity, ensuring equality, and protecting the personal and political liberty of all people. This stands in contrast to a Republican presidential field that would not accept one dollar of tax hikes for every ten dollars cut from government spending in a budget compromise. They believe that bolstering so-called “job creators” by rewarding them with further tax cuts and deregulation will translate into greater prosperity for us all. America has been waiting 30 years for this prosperity. It’s time for us to move on to a different approach.
President Obama has started to frame the debate in the right way, but he must go further and engage Republicans in a bona-fide values debate that will pit the wisdom of conservatism against Obama’s brand of progressivism. Obama will have to be direct and speak frankly about the uncertain future that we now face. But, the president can also outline a strategy for America that will reform government and the free market alike, and realign our public policy toward reason, not politics.
There are bold programs and solutions we that we can put in place right now to put us on a path of progress again. It is a matter of political will and, more importantly, political courage. America needs an ideas leader once again, in the model of Abraham Lincoln and FDR. I believe Obama can be that leader, and this how he can win this election. He must tear down the conventional wisdom of the conservative status quo, and present his progressive vision for a new American Century.