Bridging the Enthusiasm Gap: Obama and the Conventional Wisdom

Obama and his White House team seem a little too sorry for themselves and lack genuine self-analysis of the president's political problems.
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The profile of Barack Obama by Peter Baker in the New York Times Sunday magazine ("The Education of A President") has a "woe is me" tone. Obama and his White House team seem a little too sorry for themselves and lack genuine self-analysis of the president's political problems. The crazy Tea Party folks hate him, the Republicans in Congress don't appreciate his efforts at bi-partisanship, and liberal Democrats are too demanding, too unrealistic about what can actually get done in Washington. No one appreciates his accomplishments. There is an absence of serious political analysis as to why his base is shaky or how his opponents got the upper hand -- especially message-wise. After the mid-term, Obama needs to push his own re-start button; but it will only work if he gains a clearer understanding of what needs to be done to recharge his presidency and provide stronger political leadership for the country.

President Obama and the Democratic Party are headed for significant political losses in the November mid-term elections -- and, no surprise, the conventional political wisdom is already being offered up as the answer to Obama's weakened position. Columnists, pundits, and party elder statesmen are telling him that he tried to do too much in the first two years, that he was too liberal in his policy advocacy, and that he alienated the business community. The remedy: govern from the center, try even harder to be bi-partisan, and stop criticizing Wall Street and bring some CEOs onto the White House team. Obama should think small and tactical -- and take a page from Bill Clinton's triangulation playbook which he followed after his mid-term defeats.

Such tactics might work to get Obama reelected in 2012 -- as it did Clinton -- but it will not allow Obama to govern successfully. He will accomplish little in the rest of his first term or in a second term, because he will be on the defensive most of the time. His base will get increasingly discouraged (as many of them are now), and he will end up alone in the White House with few genuine allies and no real accomplishments. A fired up and even more hostile right wing Republican Party will pursue him relentlessly and oppose him at every turn. If anyone doubts this, just watch what the Republicans do with the committees of the House, should they, as is likely, regain majority control in a few weeks. They are already preparing an onslaught of investigations and legislation to repeal or gut the major legislation that Obama has thus far managed to pass.

For Obama, it is not a matter of thinking big or thinking small; it is a matter of thinking smarter and more strategically. He needs to look for the Unconventional Wisdom that is being offered up by progressive thinkers and activists -- and he needs to bring in fresh, tougher and smarter personnel to his White House team, both for the 2012 election, and for governing after he wins reelection.

Here are a few modest proposals from outside the Beltway for him to ponder as he crisscrosses the country in the final days of the fall campaign:

Inequality and an Economic Bill of Rights

Economic inequality in the US is now at the same level as during the 1920s. Coupled with increasing economic insecurity that most Americans are experiencing, it is a potent issue which Obama can address and use to his political advantage. Before the end of the year, Obama could announce a Presidential Commission on Economic Inequality -- its causes and possible remedies, and appoint a well known and intellectually strong chairman such as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich who has been teaching a course on economic inequality at UC Berkeley's Public Policy School and written a new book on the subject (After-Shock: The New Economy and America's Future) or Georgetown law professor Peter Edelman, former policy adviser to Robert Kennedy, and one of the country's experts on the poor and disadvantaged. Progressive economists like Robert Frank (see his article, "Income Inequality: Too Big to Ignore", New York Times) Joe Stiglitz or James Galbraith could be appointed to the commission, along with noted populist politicians such as retiring Senator Byron Dorgan. Charge the commission with holding public hearings on the fact of economic inequality, its effect on the country, and the reasons for it, and have a report delivered by the end of 2011 to provide ammunition for the 2012 election and policy ideas for after.

Soon after the New Year, perhaps as part of the State of the Union, Obama should announce that he favors an end to affirmative action as we know it. Instead of race based affirmative action, he is throwing the support of his administration behind the idea of economic-based affirmative action- -- and he might include his support for proposals that illustrate this new approach such as universal school vouchers based on family income (which Reich advocates in his book). In addition, he might recall FDR's famous Economic Bill of Rights speech and announce his own version for the 21st century as part of his campaign platform. It could include a significant initiative for workers by making economic rights in the workplace a civil right under law as proposed by labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan in "Ten Things Dems Could Do to Win" in The Nation. Let workers as individuals have stronger legal rights rather trying to argue about labor law reform and the state of existing unions.

Of course, part and parcel of these initiatives is the necessity of bringing more deft and tougher communications advisers into the White House and hiring speech writers of the ilk of David Kusnet ( author of the still relevant book Speaking American) whom I hired for Clinton's 1992 campaign, and who wrote some of Clinton's best and most effective speeches. Obama has to be willing to talk about economic inequality and why the working and middle classes are so stressed -- and offer plausible and politically tough remedies. Simply getting the economy going again will not address the issue.

Green Initiatives

Obama is not going to get any kind of climate change or major environmental legislation through Congress in the next two years -- but he can begin to talk more effectively about what is needed -- and he can take executive steps to illustrate his commitment and excite his base. For example, the Energy Department's plan for Energy Innovation Hubs (see Tom Friedman's column, "Build' Em and They'll Come") is called by Secretary Chu "a series of mini-Manhattan projects." Not good labeling. President Obama should present the idea in his next State of the Union as The Green NASA, and set out clear and easily understandable commitments ("By 2015, all of the vehicles in the Federal government's service will be electric....", etc. He should also make highly visible green initiatives by executive order such as announcing that all US ambassadors will only drive in electric or hybrid cars, and that the US Postal Service is "going green" (as proposed by Postal Rate Commissioner Ruth Goldway), converting its fleet of vehicles to alternative fuels. If he is really brave, he might state categorically that the US needs a significant tax on gasoline, and if the Congress will pass one, the revenue will be used to fund the Green NASA project, and also return dividends in the form of state and local green initiative grants.

Even some conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute support increased federal spending on clean energy. As David Leonhardt described in his business column "Next Step on Policy for Climate" in the New York Times, AEI has teamed up with the centrist Brookings Institution to propose $25 billion a year in new federal investment. Al Gore and other progressives have floated similar proposals. Of course, they make sense, and while not a substitute for tougher action on climate change (like a tax on carbon), they are a step in the right direction. Technical innovation is part of the answer to the problem of global warming -- and politically, it is an issue that Obama can use to outflank know-nothing Republicans who deny that climate change is a problem. It also plays to bi-partisan concerns of China taking over the world market for clean green technology -- and will appeal to some centrist voters.

Latinos and Immigration

In the first months of the Bush administration, the foreign minister of Mexico, Jorge Castaneda, brought a proposal across the border from President Vicente Fox that he called the Whole Enchilada. It was a comprehensive package that offered cooperative and cross border approaches to immigration, drugs, and economic development -- but after 9/11 and Mexico's unwillingness to support Bush's invasion of Iraq, the initiative was dead in the water (see Castaneda's book, Ex Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants, for a discussion of the proposal and what happened to it, as well as an analysis of the most difficult issues between the two countries).

Immigration, drugs, and economic development have not gone away as issues in either country. Tackling any one of them is almost impossible for Obama in the next two years. However, the Republican Party's approach to immigration has proved a political boon to Obama and the Democrats and it appears that Latino voters, if they are gotten to the polls in decent numbers, can play a vital role in key Senate, House and state races.

Obama could sustain and excite his Latino base by including in the State of the Union a proposal to restart comprehensive talks with Mexico along the lines of Castaneda's proposal -- and he could challenge Republicans to face up to these issues with more than negativity and militarism. Obama will never pass an immigration reform bill unless it is part of the Whole Enchilada. He could set the stage for it as a priority in the second term by speaking about it now and also assure excitement in the Latino community for his reelection.

Nation Building at Home

As Bob Woodward reports in his current best seller Obama's Wars, the president is not in Afghanistan to nation build. At least, Obama seems to understand the futility of that project. Whether or not he holds to his surge and exit strategy by really starting the exit and coupling it with aggressive and smart diplomacy in Afghanistan and the region is uncertain. The good news for him is that the American public doesn't care, at least for now, about the war in Afghanistan -- and only will care if casualties rise too high. However, there is strong sentiment that he should be spending more of his time rebuilding Cleveland or Detroit rather than Kabul. Unfortunately, the White House design of the economic stimulus package and its messaging of it was dismal; consequently, he got little credit and much abuse for it. Saying, as he and his team does, that things would have been worse economically without it is true but weak and rather pathetic. He needs projects and initiatives (a "Rebuild America" Infrastructure Bank for example) and he needs to brand them with his vision of 21st century America.

As part of a greater focus on American society and as part of a smart political strategy, Obama needs to talk about his version of Reagan's City on the Hill -- of how he sees American society as serving as a model to be emulated, not one to be imposed on other countries by force of arms -- even if they are weak or failed states. He can also talk about strengthening American democracy -- and in particular, citizen participation in elections and in communities (he can praise the Tea Party for their civic participation, even if much of it is funded by big corporations and right wing individuals). He should challenge his opponents to make good on their own rhetoric by calling for legislation to make the next national election a federal holiday -- Celebrate American Democracy Day. Making national elections a holiday will make it much easier for working class Americans to vote -- and help him to get out the Democratic base.

Don't Whine, Organize

Obama and his White House team should stop complaining about their progressive critics, most of whom still hope for the best from Obama. Yes, there are those who are convinced by books like Tariq Ali's The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad or Roger Hodge's The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism, and have given up on Obama. I believe that most of those who voted for Obama and worked for his campaign are not ready to bail yet. They are looking for signs that he is willing to fight the good fight and to do it better. Taking the actions described above would certainly help convince progressive activists that Obama is learning from his political mistakes. One important step he could take as he prepares for reelection is to announce that this time his grass roots campaign organization will become an independent organization after 2012, and not be kept under the Democratic National Committee (and under strict White House discipline). He should promise that it will be turned over to someone like Marshall Ganz to run as an organization which will push for progressive change based on grass roots activism not inside the Beltway lobbying and maneuvering.

Not doing this in his first term has proved to be a big mistake; hopefully, he can learn from it (see the discussion in Ari Berman's well reported book, Herding Democrats: The Fight To Rebuild The Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics). He needs both an aggressive outside strategy as well as a tougher and more deft inside strategy if he is going to rescue his Presidency.

In politics as in sports (and life too), it's not over until it's over. I don't want to count Obama out yet. Bill Clinton rebounded from a terrible first two years and won reelection handily, and was poised to be a better second term President (but he ruined it himself with the Lewinsky affair). Obama can learn from his own experience, find a stronger economic message and a clearer and more compelling American narrative -- and he can revamp his White House team. It's not rocket science. The people and the strategic elements exist for him to choose a path to victory in 2012 that will position him and the Democratic Party to make significant change in his second term.

We will get some indication of his choice -- either the Conventional Wisdom or the Unconventional Wisdom -- by how he reacts to the mid-term elections, whom he brings in to replace his departing economic team, and what message he offers the nation early next year in the State of the Union.

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