Darman: ‘Ask Not What You Can Do For Barack Obama, Ask What Barack Obama Can Do For You’

In the latest dead-tree NEWSWEEK, my colleague Jonathan Darman pens a letter to his generation. The message: "despite all the enthusiasm for Obama, you, his young supporters, have done little to ensure he'll be the kind of transformative leader you long for. Your biggest failure: you've hardly asked Obama for a thing." Actually, Darman's generation is my generation, too: he's 27; I'm 26. His essay is a smart, substantive, well-reasoned argument for why young voters--who will play a large part in any Obama win--should require more from the Illinois senator on the entitlement crisis, the national debt, global trade and climate change. I doubt any of this will happen, of course. But Darman raises an important topic for debate: if young voters fulfill their promise and actually make a difference at the polls, why shouldn't they ask for a return on their investment? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Key excerpts: 

(Jim R. Bounds / AP) 

No generation of young people, except maybe the radicalized '60s youth, has ever organized as an interest group. The problem is, on his long road to the White House, Obama has met plenty of groups who do want something from him. He has encountered senior citizens who worry about what he'll do to their Social Security checks, union members who worry he'll trade away their jobs and small businessmen who worry he'll tax them into oblivion. These people are not as enamored of him as you are and have made it clear that he has to work for their vote. He's taken their challenge, making promises to each of these old interest groups that, in the White House, he'll look out for them...

Get selfish before it's too late... If you really want to be the change you've been waiting for, start holding Obama to some of his promises to our generation. In these waning days of the campaign, ask not what you can do for Barack Obama, ask what Barack Obama can do for you.

Of course, asking is easier said than done. What exactly should you ask Obama for?

The most predictable request, and a suitable one for our earnest generation, is for Obama to do something about the entitlement crisis. Many of you know how Armageddon is coming through simple math: the retirement of the baby-boom generation means the Social Security system will have to pay out more in benefits for retired workers than it is taking in from those still in the workforce. Politicians have long paid lip service to the coming crisis (Al Gore's "lockbox," President Bush's "ownership society"), but to date, none of them has achieved a solution. Under an Obama presidency, the crisis will be on our doorstep.

In the early stages of his campaign, Obama seemed genuinely interested in addressing this problem, proposing to cover the Social Security shortfall by raising the payroll tax on high earners. In recent weeks, though, his advisers have significantly scaled back this proposal. The momentum of the modern presidency suggests that the appropriate time for a president to dare to touch the "third rail," the first year of a second administration, may be many political lifetimes away for either Obama or McCain.

The new financial crisis, however, presents a Democratic president with a unique opportunity on entitlements. Historically, Republicans have started any conversation about Social Security with a demand for partial privatization of the program. The failure of President Bush's Social Security plan, however, combined with volatility in the markets, may well lead many Republicans to conclude they cannot sell privatization politically. A concerted effort by Obama to attract attention to the problem could force Republicans to find new solutions—say, through means testing or raising the retirement age.

More immediate: ask Obama to level with our generation about the national debt. In September the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the next president will inherit a deficit of $500 billion—a record number that does not include the cost of a bailout of Wall Street. To be clear, this is debt that will be paid by our generation. Servicing the deficit will be harder for us than it was for our parents since our creditors in the world at large have less confidence in the fundamentals of our economy and our ability to pay off our debts in the long run.

Obama's economic advisers have said they are convinced that, even in light of the current financial crisis, they can address the deficit and grow the economy all while keeping the tax burden off the middle class. Many of these advisers are veterans of the Clinton administration and thus have credibility when they make such a promise. But they have no such credibility in promising they can do all these things while investing in our future. During the past 30 years, neither party has any record of spending money, outside of defense, with benefits that accrued primarily to future generations. Rather, under Reagan, both Bushes and Clinton, the government's largesse, in times of deficit and times of surplus, was used to subsidize current consumption. Here, more than anywhere, is where government has failed to deliver for our generation. It has not been a question of ideology or a question of how to do the math. It is simply a moral failure. Now is the time to ask Obama to treat you more honorably than presidents who came before.

This will no doubt prove an uncomfortable request for some of you, who know nothing kills a Democratic candidate like honest talk about taxes. Perhaps, then, you will make an arguably less dangerous, but certainly no less dramatic, request: make the case for global trade. Those of us blessed with many years ahead of us will see China, India, Brazil and Russia equal (or better) America's economic strength. Our survival in this new world will depend on our ability to be a nimble player in the global marketplace. Through nudges and winks from Obama's friends and advisers, one gets the sense that the candidate understands this reality. But during the course of the campaign, his language on trade has devolved into protectionist Democratic boilerplate. Is it too much to expect Obama to acknowledge the global reality of the future?

Perhaps most important, ask Obama to level with the nation about what seriously addressing climate change will require. Clearly the candidate's heart is in the right place; he and the Democratic leadership have said global warming will be a top priority. A realistic policy solution on carbon emissions, however, will require the next president to pull off three masterful feats: a public-information campaign to create political support, a grand congressional bargain and a muscular global agreement that includes emerging powers. Obama has not spent this campaign preparing the electorate for the notion that this problem will require a major sacrifice to cover the transitional costs of a new energy economy. He could help himself by admitting that a viable fix requires more than just biofuels, green-collar jobs and Al Gore.

I do not mean to suggest that asking questions of Obama will help him get elected. Some of them will probably hurt his chances. An Obama defeat is an outcome many of you cannot fathom and most of you would like to avoid. But if our generation fails to hold Obama to a higher standard in the final weeks of this campaign, it will most likely get what it deserves: a decidedly ordinary President Obama and a new generation's descent into cynicism. This would be a tragedy, for, in truth, there is one thing that makes our generation special. We still have the power to believe.