The Magazine

What to Expect When You're Expecting...

to be president.

May 19, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 34 • By LAWRENCE B. LINDSEY
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Eight months from now America will have its first president in nearly five decades with zero executive branch experience at the federal or state level. The shock to the new occupant of the Oval Office will be profound. Within a matter of weeks he will have to fill about 1,500 jobs and propose a legislative agenda all the while dealing with foreign adversaries who will seek advantage in a period of transition between administrations. Then, after a brief honeymoon--six weeks for McCain, six months for Obama--the press will turn relentlessly hostile.

Neither man is prepared, indeed no one can be fully prepared. But both are now running campaigns for an office that more closely resembles that of Senator of the United States than President of the United States. For the good of the country the sooner this changes the better. Both need to lay the groundwork for governing. The easiest place to start by far is with a legislative agenda.

Consider something obvious and unavoidable like taxes. McCain will "keep the Bush tax cuts." Obama will get rid of them. Trouble is, McCain can't "keep the Bush tax cuts"; they expire, so merely saying you're going to keep them is hardly an act of economic leadership. Obama will get "change" on taxes simply through inertia; no leadership needed. But guidance would be useful. For example, inertia would take the top rate on capital gains back to 20 percent. Obama had said he wants it "no higher than when Ronald Reagan was president," which means 28 percent. But his advisers publicly said 25 percent and in a recent interview on Fox News Sunday he dodged and weaved on the subject of rates.

By contrast, he did not bob and weave around a much bigger tax increase--lifting the cap that limits the income on which Social Security taxes are paid and benefits calculated. That would add 12.4 percentage points of tax to every person making over roughly $100,000. How does that square with not raising taxes on middle income families? Nor did he say what he would do about changing the formula that links benefits to taxes paid. Would Social Security stay a contributory system or become just a welfare scheme? The generally fawning press hasn't asked these tough questions. If it doesn't, the country will just have to find out what is behind the proverbial "Door Number One" after the election.

Both men say they want "cap and trade" systems for carbon emissions. It would be generous to call what their campaigns have put out on this even "works in progress." But any scheme that actually reduces emissions must be a net tax hike on end users like drivers and homeowners with electric bills. How is this not a tax hike on middle income Americans? Both men have proposed radically different health care concepts, but again, the specifics are missing on how either would save money rather than raise the nation's health care bill. The list goes on.

All of this is fine if one wants a senator. Once elected, that man will accomplish about as much as the Senate accomplishes on its own volition. To be a successful president, though, a candidate must make up his mind before he is elected.

One need only look at the two terms of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to get a sense of the difference running on a legislative agenda can make. In 2000 Bush laid out very specific proposals on tax cuts, defense spending increases, education reform, a prescription drug benefit, and personal accounts for Social Security. Four of those five got enacted despite the lack of a convincing election win and lack of control of the Senate. Sure, compromises were made, but the essential ingredients of each campaign proposal were enacted. In addition, the campaign had produced a detailed agenda on dozens of issues that guided executive branch decision-making in the first term.

By contrast, in 2004 Bush did not run on any specific legislative programs. The issue was staying in Iraq. He received a mandate to do so and carried it out. But Social Security reform was revived as an afterthought in early 2005 and went nowhere. Immigration reform was invented on the fly and died on the vine. There were no significant legislative accomplishments in the second term despite a three million vote win and solid control of both houses of Congress.

Saying what you're going to do in specific fashion is not only good government, it is also good politics. A solid record of legislative accomplishment gained Republicans seats in 2002 and 2004 and gave Bush a reelection victory despite the Iraq war and a recovering but hardly robust economy. The lack of an agenda in 2005 and 2006 helped cost the Republicans the Congress in the midterms and send the president's popularity to new depths.