Barack Obama is going to have to be a different kind of president, and I don't mean just policy or the fact that he's by far the coolest guy to hold that office in my lifetime. I mean he's going to have to change the tone of how Americans look at our country. He's going to have to do something that George Bush (and Bill Clinton before him) never did. He's going to have to get rid of the selfish baby boomer ethos. He's going to have to talk about sacrifice.
The economy can't be fixed with deficit spending alone, and the equally massive environmental issues can't be fixed with just hybrid cars and wind turbines. All those things are important. Without massive federal spending, probably well beyond what Obama is talking about today, the nation will continue to lose millions of jobs, the recession will become a deep depression, and life around here will really suck. And without new technologies, climate change will continue to get worse and energy will become far more expensive and far less reliable.
But in the end, it's going to take more.
I was listening to the Democratic response to the governor's State of the State speech Jan. 15 and the KQED radio host asked Darrell Steinberg, the state Senate president pro tem, the basic question of our time: why do Californians want all these wonderful services education, parks, roads, trains, etc. but don't want to pay for them? Steinberg ducked beautifully, but the question still hangs out there. And it's not just California.
Let us not forget: the United States is still a very wealthy country, and the Bush years made some of its residents exceptionally rich. I just added up the net worth of the top 20 people on the latest Forbes 400 list, and it came to $433 billion. That's 20 people. The net profits of the top 10 companies on the Fortune 500 list for 2008 totaled more than $100 billion. That's 10 companies.
Bush never asked any of those people or corporations to help pay for his war. Instead he told them everything would be easy, and gave them juicy tax cuts.
Obama has to set a different tone. He needs to say, loudly and clearly, that those who have the most (far more than they need) in very tough times should be willing to share.
A one-time, 10 percent wealth tax on the ultra-rich would probably raise half a trillion dollars. A short-term excess profits tax (similar to what the nation enacted during World War II) would provide another huge chunk. And it would send a signal to the rest of the country: this isn't going to be easy. We all have to help out, starting with those at the top.
It also means that, on every level, we all have to get more engaged, more involved in the community. We have to become a nation of givers, not just takers. Public service has to be more important than private profit.
That's a tough order for a generation raised on selfishness and greed. But it's the only way out and the guy we put in office on a banner of change has to lead the way.