President Barack Obama came into office with a wave of support and popularity not seen in a long time. Early approval ratings bumped up against 70%, and the Democrats held a commanding majority in both the House and Senate. Today his approval rating as per Real Clear Politics is 51.2%. The Republicans have dominated the air waves with arguments on health care and other issues, while the economy has continued in the doldrums, and the news from Iraq and especially Afghanistan gets worse. Obama was elected, yet the problems remain. The public is uncertain.
Just as many over-estimated Obama’s strength early on, it would be dangerous to over-estimate the strength of the Republican opposition now. The town hall meetings and GOP rallies represent a small politically motivated subsection of the US population, one already vehemently opposed to the Democrats. Moreover most people don’t pay much attention to politics in the summertime. There is disquiet and concern in the country over the economy, deficits, and the overseas wars. Obama’s support has dwindled because he’s not seen as having done a lot about these things.
In 2002 President Bush had similar problems in the run up to the Iraq war. The strategy put together by Rove and company was clear: ignore August, come out guns blazing (politically) in September. President Obama seems set to follow the course. He was relatively quiet in the end of summer — any strong push on his part would have been drowned out by the summer vacation mood of the country, and he had to let the opposition (town halls and the like) have their moment. Now, Obama has to come forward and actively lead. So here is some political advice for the President, what Iwould tell him if I were a strategist trying to figure out how to turn around recent trends.
There are three cutting edge issues which he has to address, with efficacy, if he wants to turn around his fall in popularity, and the improving prospects for the Republicans.
1. Health care. He needs to not only get a health care bill passed, but he needs to be perceived as the one who made it happen. If he can do that, the failure to get progress on health care this summer might play into his hands, as people will say “Congress couldn’t do anything, it took Obama getting involved to make something happen.” Word is that he will give a major public address on this issue soon. He needs to be aggressive, giving the public the real statistics, cost, and dangers of doing nothing. He needs to allay the fears of others by noting how the rest of the industrialized world has health care systems that guarantee coverage, and even conservatives in those countries overwhelmingly support it. If it were as scary as Republicans make it out to be, why don’t people who have such systems oppose it? He needs to challenge Congress to pass his plan, even through reconciliation (to avoid a filibuster) as a last resort. He needs the speech to be popular, and for the discourse to turn towards his framing of the issue. He should praise the concern and activism of his opponents, but say they are being misled by those who profit from the current structure.
2. Debt and Deficit. The biggest substantive criticism I have with Obama so far is the massive increase in the size of the debt this year. I know some economists, including nobel prize winner Paul Krugman, believe that we need to increase debts and deficits at this point in order to spur growth and allow us not to slip into depression. Perhaps. I’m not convinced, neither is the country. Obama needs to put forth a realistic and credible debt reduction plan that includes his health care reforms, and does something that is certain to get liberal groups angry: address the unsustainable rise in the cost of entitlements. He needs to be make that argument clear and cogent, and should tie debt reduction (and entitlement reform) directly to the issue of health care reform: Make health care part of a debt and deficit reduction plan.
3. Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama cannot win, just like Bush could not win these wars. The public sees our country in dire straights, and correctly wonders what we’re doing over there. We’re not going after Bin Laden or al qaeda, we’re trying to create security in nations riveted by sectarian violence and distrust. We’re trying to reshape political systems, not fighting terrorism. It makes no sense. Yet Obama is caught in the dilemma of a superpower. How can the US just say, “oh well, it’s not worth it,” and walk away? That could do immense political damage as well. Thus he has to find a process to extricate the US so that it doesn’t feel like defeat. Richard Nixon did that in Vietnam, Obama can do it here.
First, he needs to define the terrain. These wars are not to spread democracy, create stable governments, or defeat Islamic extremism. Rather, their sole purpose was and is to counter terrorism. As part of a counter-terror campaign it is not necessary to create stable governments, nor is it even a disaster for the Taliban to retake parts of Afghanistan. As much as we might think those governments illegitimate, the world is full of bad governments and places that operate in ways that counter our values. It isn’t our business to try to fix different parts of the world, nor do we have the capacity to socially engineer other cultures.
Once the focus is put on terrorism, clear counter-terrorism techniques can be ennuciated which allows us to begin a withdrawal that extricates us from situations we simply cannot afford to be involved in. This may include creative diplomacy, on going covert operations, and some military ventures, but in general, Obama and the US can’t afford (and the public won’t tolerate) the price it would take to make a major effort to reshape either country, let alone both.
If Obama can push through some kind of real health care reform, develop a credible debt reduction plan, and start a real extrication of the US from wars that are counter-productive, then he’ll have regained control of the agenda, and the prospects for real change increase. His Presidency depends on him being able to lead on the principles he was elected upon, and to take risks. He has played it relatively safe so far, but the times require bold decisions, and he has enough political cover to make them.
Now is the time for Obama to prove he has the capacity to deliver what his campaign promised.