Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Obama and the Opportunity Coalition

Over our history, the presidential role has evolved. Now David Brooks says it is time to take another evolutionary step.

In a column last week, Brooks urged President Obama to look past legislation and create a dizzying series of commissions that draw on America’s political center to attack chronic, unsolved national problems.

The putative Republican-leaning Brooks says Obama is entering the phase of his presidency where he will become increasingly irrelevant in legislation and politics. Instead of moping or focusing on international issues, Brooks suggests this awkward period is perfect for legacy-building. He calls on Obama to create the Opportunity Coalition.


The inspiration for moving ahead can come, Brooks say, by looking back to the Whig Party, which overcame its Federalist roots, thrived, then disappeared just before the Civil War.

The Whig Party has not coursed through history favorably. Abraham Lincoln, a Whig if there ever was one, ran for President and won as a Republican.

But Brooks has a point in resurrecting the Whig political philosophy that was aimed at building a national infrastructure to enhance opportunity for all Americans.

The most famous Whig, Henry Clay, found himself in a lifelong pitched battle with Andrew Jackson and his successors who favored a form of populism that vilified a national bank, praised coarse, independent frontiersmen and scuttled Indians off to distant lands.

While Jackson thought canals and roads were fine, he didn’t view them as part of the national agenda. Clay, Daniel Webster and the young Lincoln did.  And, so, Brooks argues Obama should pick up the “whig impulse.”

david-brooksBrooks believes our times mirror the battle line of the Whigs and Democrats over the proper role of government, in particular the national government. The contemporary argument, he maintains, has led to divided government and political friction that has slowed progress on serious matters affecting the nation’s long-term health.

Chief among them, Brooks says, is how to grapple with the expanding disparity in income and wealth and ensure there is a wide path from poverty to prosperity.

As our national leaders quarrel over the federal debt ceiling, the ceiling on upward mobility seems to be drooping. Brooks suggests commissions to investigate how to strengthen families, get children from families in poverty off to a good start in school and re-establish ways for teenagers and young adults to gain work experience.

Brooks mentions looking at wage subsidies for middle-aged workers who need retraining and workers who have been out of work for a long time and get the cold shoulder from prospective employers.

Obama should embark on “interventionist” ideas, Brooks says, by returning to his own background as a community organizer.

“Obama began his career as an organizer,” Brooks wrote in his column, “His mobility agenda floundered because the governing majority he needed to push it forward does not exist. He has the chance to remedy that, to organize, to convene, to build, and to make life a lot easier for the next swimmer in the race.”

That race – the 2016 presidential election – has already begun.


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