TIME

Obama Can Still Secure His Legacy

If he plays his last two years like the final quarter and not the back nine

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The article also appears in the Aspen Journal of ideas

A question that faces president Obama, however the midterm elections turn out, is whether he’s going to play his final two years as the back nine of a casual afternoon of golf, coasting toward the clubhouse of former presidents, or as the final quarter of a tight basketball game.

When I was working with Steve Jobs on a biography in 2009, he had an inkling that he might only have a couple of active years left. As his cancer kept recurring, instead of slowing him, it spurred him on. In those two years, he refined the iPhone and launched the iPad, thus ushering in the era of mobile computing.

President Obama has scored two monumental achievements: helping to restore the financial system after the 2008 collapse and making it possible for every American to get health care coverage, even if they leave their jobs or have preexisting conditions. Obamacare may be undermined if the Supreme Court guts subsidies for the federal exchanges. If so the sweeping nature of the reform will survive only if Obama mounts a rousing, state-by-state campaign to rally passion for protecting the new health benefits.

As for rescuing the economy, this could be remembered as a hollow victory unless the recovery restores economic opportunity for all Americans. Growing inequality—of income, wealth, and opportunity—is the economic, political, and moral issue of our time. The fundamental creed of America is that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can support your family with dignity and believe that your children will have an even better future. But that is being lost as the middle class continues to be hollowed out and the poor get left further behind.

From the Pope to Thomas Picketty, and from Paul Ryan to Rand Paul, there has been a renewed focus on the moral imperative of economic opportunity. Obama seems ready to make that the defining passion of his final two years. Fighting for a fair deal for every American goes to the core of what he believes, rounds out the narrative of his presidency, secures his historic legacy, and leads naturally into what is likely to be the mission of his post-presidency.

The foundation for such a crusade could be a simple goal, one with moral clarity and patriotic resonance: that every kid in this country deserves a decent shot. He’s got a fresh team in place, and he’s already proposed many elements of an opportunity agenda in his My Brothers’ Keeper Initiative and other speeches. Among them: Universal preschool, so that no child starts off behind. Quality after school activities and summer internships. Apprentice programs like the bill proposed by Senators Cory Booker and Tim Scott. What also could be included is a public-private effort to create a service year program so that every kid after high school or college has the opportunity to spend a year serving their country in a military or domestic corps.

I’ve been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s magisterial narrative of the Teddy Roosevelt era, The Bully Pulpit. In 1903, Roosevelt felt a fierce urge to energize the American people around what he dubbed his “Square Deal for every man, great or small, rich or poor.” He spent nine weeks crossing the country by train, delivering 265 speeches. Most were carefully-crafted explanations of why corporate trusts needed to be reined in and workers needed to be respected. But when he arrived at the Grand Canyon, he began adding passionate calls to protect the environment and preserve nature. The trip not only refreshed his presidency, it refreshed him personally. The old boxer relished not only the “bully pulpit” but also being “in the arena.”

It’s probably not feasible for President Obama to embark on a weeks-long whistle-stop tour barnstorming for a new Fair Deal and a dedication to preserving the planet, though it would sure be fun to watch. It’s hard to break through all of the static, but after the midterms, it may be possible for him to propound a narrative that ties together his proposals for economic opportunity, poverty reduction, and immigration. A vision of a land of opportunity would appeal to most Republicans as well as Democrats.

For the final two years of his term, President Obama could stay above the fray and recognize that it would be pointless, given the dysfunctional nature of Congress, to try to accomplish anything significant. A rational calculus of risks and rewards, and a sober assessment of the possibilities for accomplishing anything in Washington, would argue for that approach. But I can’t help but hope that he decides to race against the clock rather than run it out.

TIME politics

A Modest Proposal for Exploiting Corrupt Politicians

Why not have a more creative way of dealing with convicted pols?

Ray Nagin, the former mayor of my hometown of New Orleans, has just been sentenced to ten years in federal prison. He began his tenure in office by cracking down on corruption, but by the end of his two terms – after his feckless performance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – he was taking kickbacks and payoffs from city contractors.

What he did was bad, so he deserves to be punished. Yet I cannot help wondering what good it will do to put a 58-year-old happily-married father of three in a prison for a decade. He’s certainly not a danger to the community. Nor is there much likelihood that he will commit such a crime again, if only because he’s not mayor anymore.

Perhaps the justification for having America’s taxpayers pay a fortune to keep him locked up is that it will serve as a deterrent to other officials who might be contemplating corruption. However, there is scant evidence of a deterrent effect, at least in my home state. The Oakdale federal prison where the judge recommended that Nagin be sent has recently served as a home for a whole motley troupe of sticky-fingered Louisiana former politicians: Congressman William Jefferson, Governor Edwin Edwards, Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown, and State Representative Girod Jackson III.

So it seems to me that, as with nonviolent drug offenders, we need some alternatives to prison for corrupt politicians. The whole field of alternatives to incarceration seems a bit lame these days, in need of an infusion of new ideas. Perhaps Louisiana could lead the way.

One idea would be to exile Louisiana’s steady stream of colorful corrupt politicians to an island in the marshlands, such as Grand Isle. This little Elba could become a tourist attraction, like the bird sanctuary and Tabasco factory on Avery Island. Visitors from around the world could pay to poke, feed, and photograph an authentic corrupt Louisiana politician.

Another idea would be to create a Corrupt Convicts Corps and put these fallen politicians to work. They could be confined by ankle bracelets to house arrest in the evenings, but during the day they could investigate the dealings of current politicians and sleuth out corruption. They’d likely be pretty good at it, since they know the tricks of the trade.

Convicted politicians would have to serve in the corps until they ferreted out and helped convict another corrupt officeholder, who would then take over that slot in the corps. This would assure that the corps would be continually replenished with younger and wilier corrupt politicians. Such a talented posse of enforcers might serve as a deterrent. It would also cut down on the costs of prisons and anti-corruption units.

TIME Media

The New York Times‘ New Boss

Dean Baquet New York Times
Managing Editor Dean Baquet is shown in this handout photo provided by the New York Times on May 14, 2014. Reuters

Former TIME and CNN chief Walter Isaacson on the new leader of the country's most influential newspaper

Dean Baquet — newly crowned executive editor of the New York Times — manifests a rare combination in journalism: he can be a tough reporter and also a nice person.

We worked together, in the 1970s, as fresh-faced junior reporters for a feisty New Orleans afternoon paper, the States-Item, soon to be folded into the Times-Picayune. Dean and I shared a workspace and often a byline. He was a dogged investigative reporter, and I tagged along. Once we wrote a blockbusting story together about a sketchy businessman who, we alleged, had been involved in arson, and he promptly sued us for libel. I was panicked, but Dean was sanguine; he knew that the U.S. Attorney in New Orleans was about to indict the guy a few days later.

Dean will be a great editor because good journalism is essentially a collaborative endeavor. Dean, with his friendly smile and deeply sympathetic soul, knows how to enlist people to work together, partner, cooperate, and collaborate. He’s a teambuilder.

This will be especially important at the New York Times, which is stocked with the industry’s most talented journalists but does not always win awards for newsroom morale.

Dean also knows that you can be an honest, hardnosed reporter without disliking the people you cover. He is essentially an optimist, which is why his smile is so natural.

When he left the Los Angeles Times, he showed that it was possible to stand on principle, not be forced to compromise your values, do it in a quiet and graceful way, and live to tell the tale.

There are some good lessons in the rise of Dean Baquet. 1. It’s possible to be both smart and kind. 2. Good leadership in the digital age requires fostering teamwork and collaboration. 3. It’s good to lead by example. 4. Nice people sometimes finish first.

Walter Isaacson, a former managing editor of TIME, is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC. A former chairman and CEO of CNN, he is the author of Steve Jobs (2011), Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), and Kissinger: A Biography (1992), and coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986).

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