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It probably gets better second term around

Froma Harrop

Publication: The Day

Published January 26. 2013 4:00AM

The Obama administration initially billed France about $18 million to cover U.S. military support for its mission in Mali, while Canada offered similar services at no cost. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens expressed shock at this alleged nickel-and-diming, noting that $18 million is pocket change to a Washington spending over $10 billion a day.

Stephens has a point, but look at it another way. Canada can pay for such minor defense needs even more easily than we can, because the United States pays for all its major ones. Europeans likewise enjoy a strong defense, largely courtesy of the United States. This reality undermines the neocon charge that America is going soft like Europe, letting its military weaken to expand comforts such as health coverage. Europe's getting both but paying for only one.

President Obama subsequently agreed to rip up the bill. That said, a clear message that America will no longer be the world's enforcer while other nations sit back in their eighth week of paid vacation seems a good start to the second term. Obama's nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary also underscores his determination to change the terms of the deal with other rich countries on matters of defense. Hagel wants coalitions to share these duties.

As an aside, making the case that this or that costs only 0.0018 percent of $10 billion - so what's the big deal? - has always been an odd approach. (Welfare advocates also make these kinds of arguments.) If the U.S. government sent Froma Harrop a check for $5 million, that would be a mere 0.0005 percent of the day's outlays. But doing so makes no sense, much to my regret.

Meanwhile, President Obama's vow to pursue a liberal agenda in the second term is, contrary to conventional discourse, a good way to work across the aisle. The debates over health care and raising the debt ceiling got so nasty, in part, because Obama wouldn't draw lines and defend them. Republicans couldn't tell how far he'd compromise, fueling hopes on the fringes. Had Obama refused in 2011 to make raising the debt ceiling part of budget talks - as he does now - Republicans would be better off today. Threatening the full faith and credit of the United States as a negotiating tool didn't win them many friends.

Republicans have since smartened up. Rather than replay the creepy drama of two years ago, they've put off the debt-ceiling vote for three months. (They're still toying with it, but not terrifying world markets.) Republican Speaker John Boehner now tells the Democratic-majority Senate that it had better get off its duff and present the House with a budget avoiding deep automatic spending cuts. Sounds like a reasonable request.

Other items on Obama's "aggressive" liberal agenda should not be regarded as aggressive - or even liberal. Immigration reform could be doable, as more Republicans recognize that legalizing the status of otherwise law-abiding illegal residents in this country is politically astute. And restoring order in the program could include favoring immigrants with the skills American business needs. That the Obama administration has already begun enforcing the immigration laws should make this a golden moment to win broad support for comprehensive reform.

Global warming should not be a liberal-versus-conservative thing. The climate change pushing floodwaters into Brooklyn also scorches crops on the Texas panhandle. Anyhow, many solutions to global warming would also enhance energy independence, and who'd object to that?

This may be optimistic, but the furies wreaking havoc in Obama's first four years seem tuckered out. May an era of new thinking commence.

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