Dear President Obama
I am writing this open letter because I have an idea for saving America, but a basic prerequisite for it to have any sort of impact is the support of folks with a lot more pull than can be mustered by an autistic grad student in political science. Who should be writing wonky, data-driven research papers about governance and development, not worrying about the future of America.
Oh, and my greeting: I know I'm supposed to accept the legitimacy of the rancid tangerine that followed you into the Oval Office, but I just can't. As far as I'm concerned, you remain the legitimate President of the United States of America. Also, my wife and I firmly believe that Michelle is kind of frickin' amazing, and if America is doomed, we'll get by on the hope that she can be elected Queen of whatever comes after.
I use the term 'dying' with full awareness of what that statement implies. And I suspect that you know better than anyone the full truth of the matter. In 2008, you were elected to bring hope and change to this country. To the majority of us under the age of 50, you represented America's future, our chance for fundamental reform. No President entered office with a greater mandate for change than you had in 2009. And despite my own vehement disagreement with many of the decisions you made (history will view America's ongoing drone war as fundamentally criminal, I am certain), still, I can't help but feel that you did the very best anyone could have done. You wanted to be a bipartisan President, to try and patch this divided nation back together. You failed, because the divisions are now too deep. The United States of America can no longer reconcile the fundamental differences in governing philosophy held by our two great political coalitions, the democrats and republicans, in the same federal government.
Washington D.C. is broken. The two parties, post-Citizens United, have now completed their transition, at the national level, to mere brands. Neither can actually govern, because the long two-party struggle for power in D.C. has fully degenerated into a permanent stalemate. No meaningful legislation can make it through Congress without being picked apart or loaded down with sops to whatever special interest group can best pay for access to the process. What does get done is now fully subject to reversal the next time Congress or the Presidency changes hands.
The outcome of 2016 was not the aberration conventional wisdom hopes it to be. The republicans are now so committed to representing the interests of one (fading) demographic group that they have no strategic option but to double down on the culture wars. Their rhetoric, so tied to - as you aptly put it - 'guns, god, and gays', has so deeply alienated them from any American who isn't white and nearing retirement age. Victims of their own inability to resist playing with the fire of divisiveness and racism, Trumpism represents the ultimate end-stage of their transformation to a party of ethno-religious nationalists, whose electoral survival will eventually hinge on restricting access to the ballot box, with all the damaging consequences for our democracy.
It is time to face the truth: there are many different ways of being American, and eventually the federal government must adapt itself to match this basic reality. We are trying to run a 21st century nation on 19th century architecture. Constitutional reform is essential, as Americans simply do not agree, on a national level, on how we believe the Constitution should be interpreted. And the more those differences are hardened by the partisan politics that have overwhelmed D.C., the more broken the existing system will become.
This couldn't come at a worse time. We live in an age where our species is being forced to come together as a global society to solve extremely complex problems. Climate change. Inequality. Human Rights. Geopolitical instability. 2016 and its aftermath have destroyed America's standing in the world. Our closest allies are starting to realize that the Pax Americana is over. That our power is fading. That we are too distracted by self-inflicted domestic political strife to offer the consistent, stabilizing presence that the world so desperately needs right now. Challenges abound out there: China must be balanced as its power grows, Russia must be deterred from further aggression, and careful diplomacy is required to manage the many simmering crises in North Korea, the Middle East, and the developing world.
Humanity doesn't have the time or space for bringing back the realpolitik and military competition that characterized the early 20th Century. The species itself won't survive a repeat of the World Wars, not when nuclear weapons are in play. And time is running out to avoid the worst impacts that will result from climate change.
The world needs focused, consistent American leadership. But our federal government, caught up in its own banal version of Game of Thrones, can no longer provide it. It just doesn't work anymore - not for Americans, not for our allies and friends abroad. The time has come for a full-court-press at the most basic level: a nationwide debate on how to collectively update our governing architecture to meet the demands of an uncertain future.
The gridlocked disaster of contemporary D.C. leaves only one viable option for achieving the Constitutional level of reform required to save America: a Constitutional Convention, called by 3/4 of State legislatures, that can act to impose reform on D.C.
As an attorney and President, I suspect you have an intuitive sense of how challenging this would be. A nationwide campaign, public debate, coordinated legislative language across three dozen states, agreement to limit the scope of the Convention itself - the effort would be unprecedented. But as probably the most successful bipartisan communicator of our generation (let's be honest, you'd have been re-elected in 2016 if you had been able to run), you are uniquely suited to a nationwide effort that actively seeks to transcend the current political stalemate.
Granting for the sake of argument that this could be done (and it could be, if America has any competent political leadership left) what type of Constitutional reform could garner the necessary level of bipartisan support? As broken as the two-party system in D.C. may be, the dysfunction is reflected in most state legislatures. So to pass, reform will have to offer both democratic and republican partisans something they want, that their constituents will actually back.
There is probably only one sufficiently powerful uniting position left in this country, an assumption about America and American politics that it is fair to say most (and probably a Constitutional majority) of Americans can agree on: the dysfunction is mostly the fault of the other party.
Troubling as it may be, the political geography of the United States has evolved so that most of the country is now physically 'owned' by one party or the other. Only a couple dozen house districts out of more than 300 are competitive in any given year. The same goes for most of the Senate. America has sorted itself by ideology over the past twenty years, and there are now only a few true swing states.
Which actually represents an opportunity for constructing a narrative with sufficiently broad appeal that we can move to sort of reset our federal system of government, reforming it to better match the on-the-ground divisions that already exist. To save the United States as a whole, we need to divide the federal government up by region. We need to enact a Constitutional Amendment that turns one federal capitol into several (I like six), retaining D.C. as a Brussels-like supranational capitol holding only those powers - like maintaining a common currency/economy and common protection under our nuclear deterrent - that all six regions agree can be delegated upward.
Each Autonomous Federal Region (AFR) will be almost totally sovereign, and responsible for representing the interests of all Americans in its foreign area of responsibility, which will be tied to the six existing major Pentagon commands. Each AFR will be handed the Constitution, an interim federal government comprised of the region's existing elected representatives in the federal Congress, and allowed to develop independently from there in whatever way its citizens prefer.
This solution benefits all Americans by making the federal government in their AFR fundamentally more focused on their needs. Rather than having every different region in America fight through the same convoluted D.C. system, subjected to checkmate actions by partisan lobbyists. Reforms that would be wildly popular in one part of the country are blocked because another part of the country has a different philosophy. The resulting governments under this plan would cover a smaller area, fewer people, and would be better equipped to focus attention on the core issues of concern to voters in their area.
Defining the regions is actually pretty simple. Existing census groupings offer a guide, as do maps of partisanship scores like those produced by the Cook group. California, Texas, New York, Illinois, and Florida are the 5 largest and wealthiest of the states, each as an independent country would rank among the world's richest. And each is quite similar in politics and economic capabilities to many of its neighbors. California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawai'i along with the other Pacific islands (and perhaps Alaska as well) would form an AFR of about 55 million people, and have an economy the size of Germany. Texas and the Midwestern Plains would be similar in population and economic strength, as would Illinois and the states clustered around the Great Lakes. The Northeast above the Potomac and the Southeast between the Mississippi and the Atlantic would each be home to about 75 million Americans and each would boast a Japan-sized economy. The smallest AFR would cover the Intermountain West, from Arizona and New Mexico in the south up to Idaho and the Dakotas in the North, with about 25 million Americans and an economy approximately the size of Canada's.
In truth, one of the more boring secrets of the USA is that we're already, at the federal level, governed this way. The courts, the bureaucracy, even the military are broken up by region. There is really no other viable way to manage a continent-sized society of 325 million people. What this Constitutional change would do, in the end, would simply be to make the federal government match the underlying variety that already exists in the United States of America. It would bypass the swampy cesspool of D.C., and give each resulting region a functioning majority government, accountable to its citizens. No more would politicians get to simply play off D.C. and blame their failure to represent their constituents on the opposition. Each region would immediately have the capability - and responsibility, to select its own future.
This reform would also function as a put-up or shut-up moment for all Americans, whatever their political views. Each AFR's success - or lack thereof - would be its own responsibility. The Southern and Plains states would almost certainly adopt the republican dream of extremely limited federal government. The Pacific and Northeastern States would likely become leading international bastions of progressive government. The Intermountain West and Great Lakes would be more mixed, but citizens of both would benefit from the natural re-balancing that would take place between the local democratic and republican parties, allowing for more focused and contextually rich political discussions in those AFRs on the issues that matter to local residents.
Abroad, this reform could actually improve America's relationship with its allies. While it may seem counter-intuitive, you earned yourself a head of grey hair in large part because too much comes across the desk of the President of the United States. Trying to push all the world's problems through one government just means that anything not ranked as an immediate crisis tends to fall by the wayside. Kashmir disappears when North Korea fills the news. The strategic drift of the United States since the 1990s is down in large part to the shifting of coalitions within the government, driven by regional differences, resulting in constant uncertainty on the part of our allies with respect to America's reliability. I would bet that most of our allies and partners abroad would far prefer consistent attention from 1/6 of America 100% of the time, rather than the current default of inconsistency and geopolitical over-correction. Speaking as a resident of the Pacific States, I am far more sure of the Pacific Command's ability to effectively handle North Korea and China than I am that of broader Pentagon - especially in an age where the occupant of the Oval Office feels comfortable casually threatening wars that would make casualties of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of our allies' soldiers and civilians.
I could drag the argument out further, of course, but I see little point. What I am articulating here is a solution to America's ongoing political crisis that few, if any, other voices are advocating. It is possible because it largely bypasses D.C., and desirable because, frankly, America is too big and diverse to manage from the Oval Office in D.C. The country is falling apart, and despite the endless homilies about our unity, muddling through in the hope that sanity will return in 2018, or 2020 is futile. With growing evidence of Russian influence and the simple fact that Donald Trump openly said, as a candidate, that he felt no obligation to respect the outcome of an election that did not go his way, is bringing into question the very integrity of our electoral system. Americans have not been this terrified in almost a century. Whatever anyone's personal political position on any of the issues facing our society, we should all by now be able to agree that the status quo is not working.
So why am I writing this to you, a former (technically) President, lifelong member of the democratic party and committed, patriotic American? Because you promised hope and change in 2008, and you have yet to deliver. Worse, what legacy you have is being torn apart by a man with no regard for basic human decency and respect, who is apparently so driven by loathing for your accomplishments that he will stop at nothing to demolish them. And you know exactly how much damage a fool can do in the Oval Office. And even if impeachment becomes a reality, will Mike Pence really be any different than Trump? If Mueller obtains enough evidence that we impeach all the way down to Paul Ryan, will the fundamental damage done to our democracy truly be repaired?
Mr. President, if you want a legacy, you are going to have to fight for it. America needs 2008 Obama back. We have no other communicator capable of uniting this divided nation - or at least enough of it to get the job of rebuilding our institutions done. Leadership is a sadly lacking characteristic of our contemporary political elite. If you, with your governing experience and personal connections (how many billionaires are in your phone contacts, I wonder? More than I will ever know, I'm certain!) can't lead a reform movement, no one can. And America, then, truly is doomed.
So there's my argument, and my plea. For what such things are worth, coming from a 30-something grad student. But hey - nothing ventured, nothing gained. Stranger things have happened in this world. If you ever find yourself in Portland, Oregon, I'd love to buy you a coffee and discuss.
Andrew M. Tanner
Grad Student, Political Science
Hatfield School of Government
College of Urban and Public Affairs
Portland State University