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Sunny Post-Partisanship Sounds Nice, but What's Obama's Larger Vision?

If Obama wants to set America on a new path, he needs to make clear what that path is.

Responding to criticism that President-elect Barack Obama's cabinet is composed largely of recycled Bill Clinton appointees, Obama's close advisor David Axelrod told the New York Times, "He's not looking for people to give him a vision. He's going to put together an administration of people who can effectuate his vision." A few days later, after introducing his foreign policy team, Obama himself declared, "I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made.''   

Which leads to the inevitable question: What is Obama's overarching vision? What is the philosophical framework that will animate his administration and guide his cabinet officers to adopt policies different from those they embraced in the past?  

At the moment, rather than articulating a vision, Obama seems content to embrace the sentiment Michael Dukakis expressed when he accepted the Democratic nomination in 1988: "This election isn't about ideology; it's about competence."  

In his post-election "60 Minutes" interview, Obama told Steve Kroft, "… I don't want to … get bottled up in a lot of ideology and is this conservative or liberal. My interest is finding something that works. And whether it's coming from FDR or it's coming from Ronald Reagan, if the idea is right for the times, then we're going to apply it."  

Of course one should take a good ides from anyone, but what if we substituted the word "vision" for "ideas"? Would Obama say that whether the vision is coming from FDR or from Ronald Reagan if it's right for the times, he's going to apply it?

During the campaign, Obama expressed admiration for Reagan because, "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not." The implication is that Obama wants to change the trajectory of America, too. He needs to be as clear as Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt about the new trajectory on which he would set the nation.

Reagan announced his vision of a new direction for America in his first inaugural address. Interestingly, the speech was delivered as the United States was sliding into the worst economic recession since the 1930s. Reagan described the context for his address with words Obama might use on Jan. 20, 2009: "These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions. … Idle industries have cast workers into unemployment, human misery and personal indignity."  

Then Reagan began to teach Americans a new narrative about their country and themselves. He started with a diagnosis of the principal cause of the nation's economic problems: "It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government." And then moved on to his core message: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem ... It is time to … get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden. And these will be our first priorities, and on these principles there will be no compromise."   

Government is not the solution; government is the problem. That would be the defining philosophy of Reagan's America.

Ronald Reagan's defining application of his philosophy of governance occurred seven months after taking office. On Aug. 3, 1981, the nation's air-traffic controllers struck to gain higher wages and fewer hours for an increasingly stressful job. Two days later, President Reagan fired them all. And to make abundantly clear to America the radically new trajectory he expected America to follow under his administration, he not only fired them, he banned all 11,000 from ever returning to their jobs. As one former air-traffic controller, who was still trying to get his job back 23 years later told USA Today, "Reagan banned us for life. Even murderers are eligible for parole."   

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