Obama's Season of Challenge

How to Restore a Sense of Urgency?

What is President Obama fighting for? What is the point of his second term? His ability to answer these questions in a compelling way will have more to do with his success or failure than all the Republican congressional investigations combined.

Up to now, support for the president has held up in the face of the GOP offensive thanks to an improving economy and because many voters -- especially Obama's partisans -- see the Republicans hyping problems into scandals to distract attention from their own divisions and their shortage of solutions.

The real danger for Obama is that the coming months could become a summer of discontent if those who currently back the president lose track of where he wants to lead the country and abandon hope in Washington's capacity to make things better.

Already, there is a feeling of demobilization on the progressive side of politics. The liberal writer Paul Waldman captured the problem recently with this question on The American Prospect website: "What is the grand battle in which liberals are now engaged?"

His response: "For the first time in a decade, there isn't one." While the next three years could well be "decisive for the liberal project," he wrote, "it doesn't feel that urgent to liberals."

Obama needs to restore a sense of urgency. But how?

Given a president's power, there are many ways for him to alter the media agenda, and he seized on some of them this week. On Tuesday, Obama announced three appointees to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, directly confronting Republican obstruction of his judicial nominees. Obama should have taken on this battle long ago, but it was a welcome step.

On Wednesday, he announced a new foreign affairs team with Susan Rice replacing Tom Donilon as national security adviser and Samantha Power named to take Rice's job as ambassador to the United Nations. And on Friday, Obama plans to give a speech in California touting what the Affordable Care Act will achieve.

Of these moves, the last has the potential of becoming part of a coherent effort to improve the living standards and opportunities of middle-class and lower-income Americans, to speed the recovery, and to leave his successor a thriving economy.

Obama and his party have been playing defense on health care. He needs to turn the tables and challenge those who would obstruct the law's enactment and block the flow of its benefits. Implementation needs to be transformed from a dry bureaucratic chore into an element of a larger crusade for economic security.

Similarly, Obama needs to change the terms of a stale and gridlocked budget discussion. "It's Time to Hit the Reset Button on the Fiscal Debate," the title of a new report by the Center for American Progress, sets the right course.

"We need to stop allowing deficit concerns to hijack every other policy discussion," writes Michael Linden, the report's author. He offers persuasive data to show how much progress has already been made in reducing the deficit. Much of the commonplace anti-deficit rhetoric is out of date, he says, and the priority should be to undo the irrational cuts of a budget sequester that is "the poster child for the perverse consequences of deficit fever."

Congressional Republicans have been unwilling even to set up a conference committee to create a venue for normal budget negotiations. So it's pointless for Obama to continue to operate within the philosophical straightjacket of a deficit argument being used by conservatives primarily as an excuse for dismantling government. Lost entirely is the imperative of investments in infrastructure and education to promote both growth and equity.

"No more pretending that the sky is falling," the report concludes. "No more calls for an ever-elusive grand bargain." It's time to call the bluff of opponents whose cries of scandal are a diversion from their own inability to negotiate a rational compromise on fiscal policy.

Obama hoped for a quieter second term during which Republicans, chastened by defeat, would be willing to work with him on behalf of middle-of-the-road policies. This is not going to happen. Now he has a choice. He can hope for a victory on immigration reform and muddle through on most everything else. Or he can remobilize his supporters and grab the country's attention again with a broader campaign for a growing and more just economy.

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

I'm beginning to think that a large portion of his base has simply moved on.  They are concerned with 2014 and 2016.  Obama is history to them ... way too early, but, nonetheless .....

I would like to believe that Obama has learned something about what works and what doesn't work, over the past 4 years.

Item: Oratory doesn't pass legislation

Irem: The traveling Bully Pulpit doesn't change hearts and minds.

Item: The fastest way to unify the opposition is for the President to try and dictate terms.

Item: It's the economy, stupid. The economy is starting to heal.  Don't screw it up, and watch your poll numbers increase.

Item: Beward land wars in Asia.  Yes!!!!   "He kept us out of war and healed the economy" is a good beginning for a legacy narrative.

Item: ObamaCare is a conservative idea. It only becomes a "socialist government takeover of health care" when Obama is beating the drums in its defense.  In this occasion, less is more. The foundation is in place. States like California will lead the way and show the nation that it actually works. The Red States will get on board, but they need the fig leaf of Presidential disengagement.

Conclusion: It doesn't need to be a long, hot summer.  Slow and steady usually does win the race. Low profile. Mend fences.  Build bridges. Resist the temptation to take a leading role in immigration reform.  It'll only bust up the coalitions that are working to get this passed.

Obama as reflective manager will work much better than Obama as fearless leader.  Save the fearless leader stuff for terrorist attacks and natural disasters.  Americans embrace fearless leaders at those times.  Otherwise, not so much.  Particularly in the case of The Incumbent.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

... *Beware land wars..." (not "Beward")

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment