The Year in Preview: Obama's Last Stand

Margaret Chase Smith, the pioneering Republican moderate senator from Maine, was asked by a reporter in the early 1950s what she would do if she awoke to find herself in the White House. She replied, “I’d go straight to Mrs. Truman and apologize. Then I’d go home.”

Anyone trying to concoct an agenda for Barack Obama during his remaining 37 months in office should approach the task with similar modesty. The rocky terrain of 2013 is a reminder that life in the Oval Office usually becomes more dispiriting even as the furnishings grow more familiar. After five years, every two-term president (not just unequivocal failures like George W. Bush) has assembled a lengthy list of if-only and had-I-but-known regrets.

As Obama’s average approval ratings have dipped to just above 40 percent in the polls (eerily similar to Bush’s numbers at an analogous point in his Oval Office tenure), the president is being offered more free advice than a puzzled do-it-yourselfer at Home Depot. Everyone has theories about where Obama should make the emergency repairs to buttress the rickety edifice of his second-term presidency. The problem is that most of these White House to-do lists are generic—lifted from the Road to Mount Rushmore repair kits of prior presidencies.

In reality, Obama should go in a less traditional direction. His central priority for the next 37 months should reflect the enduring crisis facing the nation, his own skills and limitations and, yes, the harsh political reality that he never again will have a governing majority in Congress.

A seemingly obvious answer is to do everything possible administratively to save Obamacare—to guarantee that the president’s major legislative achievement works as planned rather than rusting like a bureaucratic Edsel. But other than belatedly bringing in a new team to replace Kathleen Sebelius and Company, it is hard to see what Obama himself can do at this point. The president, as even fawning acolytes would admit, is not a manager. Never was and never will be. So the idea that the president or his top White House staffers should be micromanaging the Affordable Care Act from the Oval Office is a formula for continued disaster.

Another glib notion is that Obama should dedicate 2014 to electing more Democrats and even winning back the House. That was a plausible scenario when the Republicans were reeling from the (Ted) Cruz missile that shut down the government. Around the time that they turned off the Panda Cam at the National Zoo, Democrats jumped to a huge polling lead in the generic ballot question that asks voters which party they would be backing in their local congressional election. That putative lead totally vanished with the botched rollout of Obamacare. In fact, these days most polls give the back-from-the-abyss Republicans a small edge on the congressional generic ballot and Democratic control of the Senate appears in jeopardy.

As a political force in a congressional election year, Obama has little to offer the Democrats beyond a president’s traditional fund-raising ability. Maybe he can help at the margins with African-American turnout in the Michigan Senate race or inspire a bit of this-is-where-it-all-began nostalgia in Iowa. But, even in the best of times, the president has always been an insipid campaigner for other Democrats. Obama devoted six months in 2010 to unsuccessfully peddling the same refrain about the Republicans: “After they drove the car into a ditch, now they want the keys back.” As the 2010 electoral wipeout demonstrated, only the president and his speechwriters found that clunky line convincing.

The standard cliché about presidential second terms is that they are defined by foreign policy rather than domestic issues.

The logic is seductive: Barring an unpopular war, a president can conduct foreign policy almost completely independent of Capitol Hill. It is easy for presidents to believe that blessed are the second-term peacemakers. Ronald Reagan’s bold effort to negotiate sweeping arms reductions with Mikhail Gorbachev at the 1986 Reykjavik summit fits this pattern as does Bill Clinton’s down-to-the-wire efforts in early 2001 to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. And Obama undoubtedly assumes that normalizing relations with Iran—after 34 years of bitter enmity—would be a signature achievement of his presidency.

But voters these days display scant interest in globe-trotting presidents and ambitious international agendas. Other than a brief flare-up of concern in September surrounding Syria’s use of chemical weapons, there has not been a single national poll this year in which even 10 percent of those surveyed named a foreign-policy issue as the most pressing challenge facing the nation. In fact, global issues did not register at all in a mid-November CBS News poll in which Americans were asked an open-ended question about the most serious problems on the horizon.

The public’s confident belief that real worries stop at the water’s edge is less an example of American isolationism than it is an illustration that this is a relatively stress-free period for the United States internationally.  So even if Obama were to forge a lasting accord with Iran, this would be the story of taming a disruptive regional power rather than replaying the Cold War tale of Nixon goes to China.

In truth, the one national security achievement that would burnish Obama’s legacy would be to declare victory and to dismantle much of the vast infrastructure of the Bush-Cheney war on terror. But a president wedded to drone attacks, paralyzed in his efforts to close Guantanamo and who endorsed for five years the National Security Agency’s data collection programs is not that kind of political leader, no matter how fervently liberals wish he were. It will take another president than Obama to end the NSA’s heedless addiction to global eavesdropping of everyone from Angela Merkel to American citizens protected by the Fourth Amendment. 

So with health care, the 2014 elections and foreign policy off the table, where does that leave us? Certainly not with the driving dream, so beloved by newspaper op-ed pages and Wall Street pundits, of a Grand Bargain to slash entitlements right now to avert some possible funding crisis in 2034. Enough with the mystery: Here is what should be the centerpiece of Obama’s final 37 months in office. And the answer is as obvious as it is elusive.

In 33 polls since Obama took office in 2009, the Pew Research Center has asked Americans to rate the economy on a four-part scale stretching from excellent to poor. And in every single one of those national surveys, more than three quarters of the respondents have opted for the descriptions of “poor” or “only fair.” The most recent poll, conducted in conjunction with USA Today in early December, found that 84 percent of all Americans remain downcast about economic conditions.

More than any other statistic, these polling numbers on the economy reflect the grim history of the president’s five years in the Oval Office. This has been a presidency defined by every form of economic distress—protracted unemployment, depleted savings, deadened lives in dead-end jobs, broken families and relationships, wasted educations, and late-night financial panic attacks.

Changing that dismal reality should be the central task of the rest of the Obama presidency.

This requires far more than a few modest legislative proposals or a single speech like the president’s recent address on economic inequality. Yes, Obama declared “the defining challenge of our time” is to make “sure that our economy works for every working American.”

But when you searched the speech for specifics—beyond the president’s laudable call for increasing the minimum wage—he mostly repeated the same long-term goals that Democrats have been articulating since the early days of Bill Clinton. How many times in the last two decades have you heard a Democrat talk about the need to “empower more Americans with the skills and education they need to compete in a highly competitive global economy”?

Unemployed and under-employed Americans can’t wait until the first graduates from universal pre-kindergarten hit the work force around 2030. They can’t wait for “a trade agenda that grows exports and works for the middle class.” The crisis is now—not decades down the line.

What Obama needs to find are Republicans that he can work with on a three-year crusade to create jobs. 

(Long pause for the laughter to die down).

This is not talking about the search for unicorns like moderate Republicans. Or finding Republicans that Obama can partner with to trim entitlements.

Remember: Just 10 or 15 years ago there was a vibrant breed of conservative Republicans personified by Jack Kemp who believed far more in economic growth than in green-eyeshade budget-cutting. Some of Kemp’s economic theories were wacky (a return to the gold standard), but he was sincerely animated by a Kennedy-esque conviction that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Please understand: This is not a brief for Obama to suddenly emerge reborn as a supply-sider. Rather, it is an appeal for Obama to embark on a sustained effort to find common ground with Republicans on ways to create jobs over the next 37 months. Obama, who came to Washington in 2009 promising to unify the red states and the blue states, now has to find some creative way to do precisely that. Failure means another 37 months of economic hardship for the jobless and the job-stuck.

Instead of more fruitless meetings with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the president might convene a White House conference on jobs filled with Republican economists. Or he could reach out to Republican governors like Ohio’s John Kasich and Nevada’s Brian Sandoval who surprisingly have proven to be willing partners on the implementation of Obamacare. Anyone, Democrat or Republican, who has a new idea for creating jobs now should be welcome at the White House as long as that proposal has a flicker of a chance of getting through Congress.

Granted this is a Sisyphean task. But somewhere there are Republicans willing to attempt to negotiate a Grand Bargain on Jobs with the White House. How many regulatory changes that appeal to conservatives would be necessary to trade for support for infrastructure spending to create jobs? Is this the moment to revive payroll tax cuts to stimulate spending? If anti-immigration right-wingers crazily insist on building a border fence, then maybe an army of the unemployed can be enlisted as public service workers to build it.

The inescapable reality of the remainder of the Obama presidency is that he never again will have the congressional votes to pass liberal legislation. That leaves the president with stark choices: Does he continue to make speeches into the wind about economic inequality knowing that nothing will change during the next three years? Or does he embark on an experimental effort to find non-traditional backdoor methods to spark the economy? Does he go with partisan talking points or the quest to find Republican partners?

Whatever the president’s frustrations, too many Americans are suffering right now for Obama to abandon the effort to create jobs. Thirty-seven months is longer than the fabled one thousand days granted to John Kennedy. Thirty-seven months was enough to carry America from Pearl Harbor to the cusp of victory over Germany and Japan.  

Even if the political pundits busily handicapping 2016 would love to resurrect Samuel Beckett to write a sequel called Waiting for Hillary, we still have a long arc of the Obama presidency. And after five years mired in the economic doldrums, the president should know what Job One has to be for the remainder of his tenure in the Oval Office.

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