Sen. Barack Obama is not campaigning on a hope and a prayer, but if he has a prayer of winning, he needs to flesh out his hopeful vision for the country. He has presented himself as a "transformational" leader, a claim that coheres nicely with his untraditional biography. Still, he needs to provide voters with a few explicit examples of what transformational leadership would mean for them. So far, his policy positions have been disappointingly typical of liberal Democrats, so voters are being asked to believe that somehow his people skills will finally get health care passed. That’s a tough sell. He is in danger of being attacked as Gary Hart was in 1984 with the question, "Where’s the Beef?" This is especially important because Obama has focused his appeal on independent voters, those who do not align themselves with either political party. Continuing to cultivate them will not only help him win the grand prize California primary on Feb. 5 where independents can vote in the Democratic primary but not in the Republican, but doing well among them also burnishes his claims to electability. There is a reason that red-state Democrats like Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano have begun endorsing Barack. What would a transformational policy look like? How about requiring all cars sold in the U.S. to be hybrids by 2020. It is doable. It would require government assistance in re-tooling factories in jobs-starved Michigan. It would address what people know is the number one economic, environmental and national security problem facing America, our dependence on foreign oil. Or, Obama could call for a longer school day for America’s public school students to reverse the declines in test scores and make sure that those likely to drop out of high school get the additional help they need to stay in. Or, he could support doubling the size of the Peace Corps, or introduce a Medics’ Corps to cope with tragedies at home or abroad. Or, he could stand on the remains of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis and announce a WPA-style program to improve America’s infrastructure. Obama’s attacks on special interests are strong selling points with independents. But, he could up the ante by proposing a radical simplification of the tax code, something last undertaken by Ronald Reagan, another candidate who knew how to appeal to independent voters. The 14 volumes in the current code are the result of lawyers and lobbyists inserting special tax breaks for specific companies. Sometimes those individual tax breaks might even make sense in terms of public policy. But, the net result is a corrupt mess. Scrap it. Switching to a modified flat tax that maintained both the progressive marginal rates and the four or five deductions that anyone can take – home mortgage interest, charitable deductions, etc. – and scrapped the rest, would do much restore the belief that ours is a government of, by and for the people. You don’t need an especially sophisticated advertising exec to devise the 30-second spot: "Here is the current 14 volume tax code, filled with special tax cuts for special interests on K Street. Here is my proposed tax code. It is four pages long. Isn’t it time we have a tax code that treats everybody the same?" Connecting a candidate’s biography with their vision for the future is the first task of any campaign. It is astonishing that Obama has gotten so far without really doing that. When Hillary attacks him for being all talk, he needs to be able to hit back with clear, easy-to-understand policies that really are transformative. Michael Sean Winters
Where's the Beef, Barack?