The Tennessean: Guest editorial: 3 urgent goals enough for now

Posted on January 24, 2010

Other Views

To reconnect with the American people in his State of the Union address, creating jobs should be President Barack Obama's first subject, reining in the national debt his second, and terrorism his third.

Then, it wouldn't hurt my feelings one bit if he stopped his speech there and focused his unswerving attention until he has jobs, debt and terror all headed in a better direction.

After all, the president struggled in his first year not only because his agenda veered too far left, but because he took too many big bites of too many apples and tried to swallow them all at once.

Years ago, I learned that a governor who throws himself into a single issue with everything he's got for as long as it takes usually can wear out everybody else. That's true for presidents, too. In 1952, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "I shall go to Korea." Then he focused on that one problem, ended the conflict — and Americans thanked him for it.

President Obama should focus with Eisenhower-like intensity on jobs. In the 1980s, I found that the best way to do that was not to try to turn Tennessee upside-down all at once, but to go step by step — amending banking laws, defending right-to-work, keeping debt and taxes low, recruiting Japanese industry and then the auto industry, building four-lane highways for auto suppliers, and a 10-step "Better Schools" plan.

In my view, a step-by-step job strategy for the country should include tax cuts, less regulation, certainty, free trade, a balanced labor climate, good educational opportunities and clean but cheap energy. Unfortunately, the president has proposed higher taxes, more regulation, uncertainty, protectionism, expensive labor policy, higher college tuitions (as Medicaid costs are passed on to states), a national energy tax and new costs for businesses that create jobs.

Reach across aisle

As for debt, Democrats in Congress are trying this week to raise the national debt limit by $1.9 trillion, an amount that is more than the total federal budget in 1999. To be sure, Obama inherited some of this. But he has run up the debt in one year nearly as much as President George W. Bush did in eight. The solution for a boat sinking because it has a hole in it is not to put more holes in it.

Finally, the president deserves credit for his decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan. But bringing terrorists from Guantanamo to Illinois, trying the 9/11 mastermind in New York City, and failing to interrogate the Christmas Eve "underwear bomber" in Detroit shows dangerous confusion about how to deal with terrorists.

When I became governor, Ned McWherter, then the Democratic House speaker, said, "I want to help because if the governor succeeds, the state succeeds." In the same way, I want President Obama to succeed. The best way for him to do that is to declare an end to the era of 2,700-page bills and to work with both political parties, step by step, on jobs, debt and terrorism to help Washington re-earn the trust of the American people.