Obama forgoes vision for re-election

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama identified innovation as the cornerstone of “winning the future.” By my count, he devoted the first half of the speech toward outlining a strategy that would make innovation the focus of America’s economic and employment rebirth. It was an inspiring speech, even if we can disagree on the details.

What a difference a year makes. Last month, in his 2012 address, the president all but dropped his innovation agenda for the nation. With just a paltry four paragraphs devoted to the theme, stuffed between the president’s remarks on higher education and energy, it’s clear that the White House has moved on to other concerns — getting Obama re-elected being paramount. As the kids might say, innovation is so last year.

In its place, the president traded sound economic principles for class warfare. We heard a lot about the injustice of Warren Buffett’s secretary paying a higher rate in taxes than the Sage of Omaha. Yes, we should restructure the tax code so the IRS net is cast wider and loopholes for billionaires are eliminated. However, this doesn’t constitute a vision for the future. But President Obama long ago abandoned meaningful reform on big issue items like taxes and entitlements in favor of using these as weapons against his political adversaries.

The president clearly believes that all this wealthy-bashing taps into the real anger of ordinary Americans, who can’t catch a break. He’s right about the last part: Americans are struggling, and have been for quite some time. But rather than propose a bold, forward-looking economic agenda that recaptures the great American spirit of innovation and sets measurable goals, Obama chose the way of political demagoguery. It might be a good re-election strategy; but it won’t put a single American back to work.

Which is not to say that the Republican presidential contenders have been any better, but if we can fault Obama for engaging in blatant class warfare, then we should be equally tough on the Republican candidates, whose solutions for America amount to cutting taxes and referring (again and again) to Ronald Reagan.

In other words, the Republican candidates are confined to the same narrow universe confronting Obama. The interest groups that form the GOP base won’t brook any discussion on tax increases; and nor will they debate any national vision that might depart from the one offered by Ronald Reagan 30 years ago. That’s like saying Ronald Reagan should have just parroted the platform of Dwight Eisenhower.

This isn’t the case for all the Republicans. Mitt Romney, in particular, knows his way around a business; knows what it takes to build a company; and knows that when the facts change, opinions should change. But in the primary race, Romney is pilloried for changing his mind, as if that’s such a terrible thing. Romney has been so defensive over the question of whether he is a “true” conservative, we haven’t heard many new or innovative ideas that would put him in a category of visionary leadership. It might take a Romney administration to hear that.

But that’s also part of the problem in American politics. There’s only a very limited window for a leader to actually exhibit some derring-do and lead. Obama has had three years; but his time for leadership is over unless he can win another election (or so goes the conventional wisdom). A year ago, Obama the visionary was talking about restoring the American economy through a bold focus on innovation. Last month, he was talking about Warren Buffett’s tax rates.

In an election year, politicians follow the herd mentality. They win by doing what politicians have always done to win. But that only further debases our politics and continues the endless merry-go-round of putting off hard choices until after the election. We can’t wait until after the election. We need action now. And if a politician was courageous enough to present a bold, visionary plan for the future of the United States, he might be surprised. He might just win.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.”