Rahm Emanuel: Time for a new contract with America.

Rahm Emanuel is widely rumored to be Barack Obama’s choice for White House Chief of Staff. As a Chicagoan, I’ve seen a fair amount of news coverage of this local congressman. The picture that emerges is remarkably consistent: very smart, very substantive, and very partisan – as one person put it, a man with a sharp mind and sharp elbows.

I doubt that Obama could find a more competent chief of staff, someone who would be part administrative director, part policy wonk, and part Karl Rove.

We know a lot about Barack Obama’s agenda, but what about Rahm Emanuel’s? He laid out his “Plan for America” in a 2006 book with Bruce Reed.

Excerpt from Emanuel and Reed’s The Plan/Big Ideas for America:

America has plenty of unfinished business, and all of the reforms we'd like to see — some of which appear in this book — would make for a very long list. But if we're going to turn the country around, we need a bold agenda that can be counted off on one hand:

1. A new social contract — universal citizen service, universal college access, universal retirement savings, and universal children's health care — that makes clear what you can do for your country and what your country can do for you.

2. A return to fiscal responsibility and an end to corporate welfare as we know it.

3. Tax reform to help those who aren't wealthy build wealth.

4. A new strategy to use all America's strengths to win the war on terror.

5. A Hybrid Economy that cuts America's gasoline consumption in half over the next decade.

THE PLAN

A new social contract, or what you can do for your country and what your country can do for you

The economy of the twenty-first century demands new skills and will require all of us to live up to new responsibilities. We believe that four mutual obligations that follow should represent the first terms of a new contract between the people and their country.

Universal Citizen Service

If you forget everything else you read in these pages, please remember this: The Plan starts with you. If your leaders aren't challenging you to do your part, they aren't doing theirs. We need a real Patriot Act that brings out the patriot in all of us by establishing, for the first time, an ethic of universal citizen service.

Universal College Access

We must make a college degree as universal as a high school diploma. More than ever, America's success depends on what we can learn. We have an education system built in the last century, with a school year left over from the century before that. In this new era, college will be the greatest engine of opportunity for our society and our economy. Just as Abraham Lincoln gave land grants to endow our great public universities, we will give the states tuition grants to make college free for those willing to work, serve, and excel.

Universal Retirement Savings

From now on, every job ought to come with a 401(k). An aging society cannot afford to keep saving less and risking more. We need new means to create wealth, based on the needs and responsibilities of twenty-first-century employees and employers. Employers should be required to offer 401(k)s, and workers will be enrolled unless they choose otherwise. If they switch jobs, they can take these accounts with them. When their paycheck goes up, so will their savings. Instead of a work force in which only half the workers have retirement savings plans, every American will have one.

Universal Children's Health Care . . .

A return to fiscal responsibility and an end to corporate welfare as we know it . . .

Tax reform to help those who aren't wealthy build wealth . . .

A new strategy to win the war on terror . . .

A hybrid economy that cuts America's gasoline use in half . . .

Ask what you can do for your country

The premier component of the new social contract The Plan promotes between citizens and their government is universal citizen service. . . .

John Kennedy was right: A nation is defined not by what it does for its citizens but by what it asks of them. If your leaders aren't challenging you to do your part, they aren't doing theirs. We need a real Patriot Act that brings out the patriot in all of us by establishing for the first time an ethic of universal citizen service. All Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 should be asked to serve their country by going through three months of basic civil defense training and community service. This is not a draft, nor is it military. Young people will be trained not as soldiers, but simply as citizens who understand their responsibilities in the event of a natural disaster, an epidemic or a terrorist attack. Universal citizen service will bring Americans of every background together to make America safer and more united in common purpose.

Chief of staffs don’t set policies, presidents do. Nonetheless, both Obama and Emanuel have proposals to use universal service for young people to remake American society, though their plans differ. If Emanuel ends up running the White House staff, one should expect a universal service proposal that is, at a minimum, competently worked out and well presented.