Here's How Obama Can Save His Presidency

Barack Obama

Photo: The White House

Can the Obama Presidency still be saved?To some, the question may seem premature or even insulting.  President Obama’s personal popularity remains high and the most recent RealClearPolitics poll average has him at a more than respectable 47.6 per cent approval; while the President’s popularity is drifting lower, congressional Republicans have been losing ground to their Democratic rivals in recent polls, and the Republican primary field remains both uninspiring and polarised. 

Small government, libertarian and Jeffersonian Paulites, globalist ‘great nation’ conservatives, conservative social activists and Jacksonian hyperpatriots are united only in their antipathy to the Obama administration and it is not yet clear whether a GOP candidate can unify this agitated but inchoate mass of energy into a strong and focused campaign.

Nevertheless it seems increasingly clear that the Obama presidency has lost its way; at home and abroad it flounders from event to event, directionless and passive as one report after another “unexpectedly” shows an economy that refuses to heal.  Most recently, the IMF has cut its growth forecast for the United States in 2011 and 2012.  With growth predicted at 2.5 per cent this year and 2.7 per cent next, unemployment is unlikely to fall significantly before Election Day.  On the same day, the latest survey of consumer sentiment shows an “unexpectedly sharp” dip in consumer confidence.  The economy is not getting well; geopolitically, the US keeps adding new countries to the bomb list, but the President has fallen strangely silent about the five wars he is fighting (Iraq, Afghanistan, tribal Pakistan, Libya and now Yemen).

The problem is only partly that the President’s policies don’t appear to be working.  Presidents fail to be re-elected less because their policies aren’t working than because they have lost control of the narrative.  FDR failed to end the Depression during two terms in office but kept the country’s confidence through it all.  Richard Nixon hadn’t ended the Vietnam War in 1972 and George W. Bush hadn’t triumphed in what we still knew as the Global War on Terror in 2004.  In all these cases, however, the presidents convinced voters that they understood the problem, that they were working on it, and that their opponents were clueless throwbacks who would only make things worse.

President Obama still has a shot at convincing voters that the GOP would make things worse, but his administration has not just lost control over the direction of the economy.  It has lost control of the discussion about the economy.

Why did the stimulus fail?  What did the President learn from this failure and what will the President try next?  The White House has been so busy bobbing and weaving it has not communicated a simple, clear story about what went wrong and what happens next.

Nobody at this point really knows what the President stands for – at home or abroad.  He is not George W. Bush and he is not Bill Clinton, but who is he and where is he taking us?    He seems bogged down in the minutiae of policies – most of which don’t seem to be working very well.  He has given his opposition valuable gifts, setting goals for himself which he then fails to meet: that the stimulus would keep unemployment below 8 per cent, public demands for Israeli concessions he failed to achieve, the promise that his health care proposals wouldn’t effect anyone who liked their current insurance, and the infamous “days not weeks” prediction about the Libya campaign.

These and similar blunders have two things in common:  they are unforced errors, and they undercut the President’s ability to present himself as a visionary leader who both understands where the country is headed and has a plan for meeting the obstacles in our path.   He frequently appears surprised by events, and over time confidence in his leadership is leaking away.

The President of the United States has two jobs:  he is the head of government and the head of state.  In British terms, he must do the jobs of both the Prime Minister and the Queen.  The Queen sprinkles pixie dust; the Prime Minister does the dirty work of legislative sausage making.  Presidents (like Ronald Reagan and FDR) succeed when they fill the job of head of state so well that they accumulate political authority which they can then use to run the government.  The pixie dust they sprinkle makes the sausage look good.  Presidents who fail to establish themselves as national leaders and symbols (like Jimmy Carter) end by losing their political authority as well.

President Obama started off with great advantages in the pixie dust department.  As the first African-American president, he embodies important American qualities simply by being himself.  Young, energetic, blessed with a stylish wife and a vibrant family, he holds Kennedy-class cards when it comes to touching enduring American themes and ideals.   He was (and can still be) an ideal representative of America to itself and to the world, a symbol of hope for national and global reconciliation and renewal.

But the President has failed to meld that image and the symbolic weight of his office to a compelling policy vision.  He takes strong individual stands — from support for health care reform to the bombing of Libya — but between the moves and the counter moves, the rhetorical claims and the policy reversals, the President’s image has become fuzzy and perplexing.  Did he abandon the concept of stimulus and cast himself as a deficit cutter because he believes it, or was the shift a tactical calculation?  What does he really believe will get the economy going again?

In particular, he has said nothing memorable about the crisis that is shaking the global economy and undermining the American middle class.  The meltdown of the blue social model is the great and inescapable fact of our time.   In what many voters will feel as a sign of financial apocalypse, the AARP has dropped its opposition to cuts in Social Security benefits. 

At home, Democrats like Andrew Cuomo and Jerry Brown are slashing budgets and attacking the perks of public sector labour unions almost as industriously as Republicans like Scott Walker and Mitch Daniels.  Abroad, Socialists like Greek Premier George Papandreou is cutting as hard as the Conservative David Cameron.  Germany has passed a balanced budget amendment; France is debating its own version.  Economic turmoil is shaking the political foundations; rising food prices helped set off the Arab Spring, the price of gold has gone through the roof, and China and other foreign creditors are increasingly sceptical about the long term value of their dollar-backed assets.

President Obama’s predecessor made many mistakes, but something is at work here that is much bigger than the faults of the Bush administration.  It is not just a US domestic problem, because we see it in the more-regulated European countries as well as in the less-regulated US.

Americans are realistic enough to understand that the breakdown of the blue social model is a messy process and that perhaps no president can deliver a pain free transition to the next stage.  But what they aren’t hearing from President Obama is a compelling description of what has gone wrong, how it can be fixed, and how the policies he proposes will take us to the next level.

What they hear from this administration are defensive responses: Hooveresque calls for patience mingled with strange-sounding attacks on ATMs and sharp, opportunistic jabs at former President Bush.  The White House has responded to strategic challenges at home and abroad with tactical maneuvers.

Voters sense that we live in historic times that demand leadership of a different kind.  What does President Obama think about the fiscal squeeze forcing trade-offs between state employee benefits and services to the poor?  How much trouble is the American middle class in — and what changes are needed to save it?

The President of the United States has to own this conversation.  His vision, his initiatives must dominate the political scene.  His opponents may fight him and defeat his proposals in Congress — that is not the worst thing that can happen.  Harry Truman did very well running against a ‘do-nothing’ Congress in 1948.

At a time of historic anxiety and tension like the present, the President of the United States cannot be an administrator, a fence-sitter, a finger-pointer.  He must first and foremost stand for something — and he must be able to make that something resonate with the voters.  The President’s job is to lead.

The longer the President fails to dominate the discussion about where this country is going the more his authority will erode.  In the end, a failure to define the problem and outline a convincing solution will hurt more than what now appears his likely failure to regenerate healthy economic growth by the next election.

He may have only one chance to get this right.  A failed attempt to define the problem and control the discussion would further fuzz the President’s image and reinforce the sense among many voters that the man is not up to the hour.

The Obama Presidency can still be saved, but only if the President becomes the kind of inspiring and effective leader these tough and uncertain times demand.

That is much, much harder than it looks.

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.

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