Obama's Wake-Up Call

Time to Talk About What He Can Do

President Obama got roughed up by the pundit class last week. The question is what lessons he draws from the going-over. Here's one he should take: The nation's political conversation has grown stale and many Americans have lost the sense of what he is doing to improve their lives.

You can argue that this perception isn't fair. The Affordable Care Act, if it's implemented well, will improve a lot of lives. The economy is adding jobs, not shedding them. The deficit is coming down. Two front-burner initiatives, immigration reform and broader background checks -- yes, they'll be voted on again -- really do matter.

But the fact is that the talk in Washington has been dominated by the same stuff we obsessed over in 2010, 2011, and 2012: a monotonous, uninspiring, insider clash over budgets. Even in that context, we barely discuss what government can do that would be helpful (except to air travelers).

Obama's defenders say that D.C. dysfunction should be laid at the feet of Republicans in Congress who are so invested in his failure that they even vote against things they are for. That's what Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., says happened on background checks.

Rather than criticize the president, says former chief White House speechwriter Jon Favreau, those who want him to succeed need to hold Republicans in the House and Senate accountable. The president can't do it by himself, Favreau said in The Daily Beast. He needs help from his supporters.

Well, sure. To pretend that the president can magically get an increasingly right-wing Republican House and Senate contingent to do his bidding is either naive or willfully misleading. The GOP really does hope that blocking whatever Obama wants will steadily weaken him.

But the president also needs to ask himself why even his supporters are growing impatient. His whole budget strategy, after all, is directed almost entirely toward gently coaxing Republicans his way, without any concern as to whether what he is doing is demobilizing the very people he needs on his side now.

When, in pursuit of tax reform, he explicitly offered a compromise to change the index that determines Social Security benefits as part of his budget, he did so against the advice of many of his most loyal backers in Congress. This includes Democrats who would be willing to vote for this cut to Social Security benefits as part of a serious budget deal. But they insist that such a major step toward the Republicans should be taken only in return for concrete concessions from them on the need for more revenues.

If Obama wants to underscore that his problem is Republican obstruction, he should tell those GOP senators he likes to dine with that they need to come up with revenues very soon or else he'll withdraw that "chained CPI" offer he claims not to like much anyway. Put up or shut up is a cliché, but a useful one.

Similarly, it's worth asking why so many of Obama's own initiatives have dropped out of public view. Obama has called for raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour. Many Democrats in Congress think, correctly, that it should be set at $10. Would it be so hard for Obama to come out fighting for the minimum-wage increase -- and for other steps to bolster the incomes of those stuck at the bottom of the economy? Why not expose that none of this is happening because of GOP opposition?

Obama wants to provide universal pre-K education. This ought to be a bipartisan idea. Many Republican governors have embraced the concept in their own states. Shouldn't the president be pushing harder to get it on the media's radar by way of forcing a debate in Congress?

The president believes we need to spend more on our infrastructure to boost job creation now and to make us competitive for the long run. He's right. But he needs to make clear this is something that's genuinely important to him.

It's true that Obama spoke about both his investment agenda and his pre-school plan at that much-maligned news conference last Tuesday. And the White House announced on Sunday that he would embark on a series of "middle class jobs and opportunity tours." What he hasn't done consistently or energetically enough is to remind Americans that the stakes in this debate are larger than the day-to-day drone of partisan invective suggests.

Remember the Mark Twain line that Wagner's music was better than it sounded? Obama's program has more to do with growth and opportunity than he usually lets on. If he wants to rally us, he might want to change this. 

(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).



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Obama is talking out loud to people with their hands clasped over their ears and screaming no, no, no! to everything he says. Meanwhile, we who do hear him are bombarding our congress people with every sort of email and petition in support of his programs and proposals. Let they who have  ears, hear. We need a new exorcism to target this incredible deafness. Maybe in 2014?

Is that the wake-up call he missed when he went AWOL during the attack on the Bemghazi consulate?

EJ's lamentations over his personal dissilusionment is sad.  Obama is still the most inexperienced president we've ever had despite being in office 5 years.  He has not learned how to manage anything but the press and the willing accolades like EJ.  He had and still has no executive, political or management experience except to read from a teleprompter.  His policies have failed to generate a vibrant economy and he is the only President to preside over 5 years of negative growth and a 5 year decline in the labor participation rate, exacerbated by doubling our deficit. EJ's need to blame Republicans is ridiculous.  They have said no to horrible policies that are starting to crumble around the President..just as you say NO to the child who wants only dessert and never dinner.    EJ needs to stop his whining and acknowlege he's been supporting the wrong saviour.  Sad he thought any person was one.  Do not worship false gods EJ ..it's geting tiring.

TelePrompTer remarks and false Benghazi conspiracy charges are the only remaining political bitter stances  of  the GOP.  

What he can do for the good of the country is resign.  I believe Benghazi will be the turning point where even the MSM will turn.  The evidance today was overwhelming by 3 of the most apolitical and honerable men i the country, all with a combined 75 years of military service. 

This cover up is a million-fold worse than Water Gate.  Four men lost their lives, and Americans, if they haven't already, will by the time it's all said and done, have lost trust.

When a leader loses trust, it's all over.  Mike Huckabee already predicted that he will not finish out his term.  Yesterday's SC election was a bellwether.  Finally the majority of Americans are waking up to the reality of one of if not the worst American President in our lifetime.

... the only president to preside over five years of negative growth
I think EJ and I would both agree that Obama could have done better. However, although growth has been slow over the last five years, it has been positive.

Hi Patricia,

1. Who's to blame for Benghazi? GOP wouldn't approve spending increases for embassy security. No evidence that experts charged with securing embassies brought security concerns anywhere near  Barack Obama. Rice "talking points scandal" pretty much fizzling out, with release of WH emails.

2. Who's to blame for IRS targeting?  Nowhere near the Secretary of the Treasury, much less the White House. Obama's condemnation was quick and forceful.

4. Who's to blame for AP/FOX email snooping?  Not brought to Obama's attention.  There were lawful supoenas. This comes down to the same type of controversy as enhanced interrogation. Balance between civil liberties vs national security.  Open for criticism, but, in the end, can be argued from both sides.

Cover up a million-fold worse than Watergate?  Leader losing trust?  Won't finish out his term?  Worst President of our lifetime?

The problem for those who desperately want to believe the questions in the preceding paragraph is that of scandal over-reach.  The American public is tired of the last Presidential campaign.  The noise from the Right sounds exactly like political campaign rhetoric -- and over-the-top rhetoric, at that.

They aren't buying it -- and the economy is starting to come to life and the deficits are going down and the people are grateful to have a President who is doing a good job against terrorists while keeping us out of foreign wars.  NJ Governor Christie is a smart politician.  He woudn't be cozying up to a guy who was in the process of going down.  Christie continues to see his Obama lovefest as a political asset.

Wishing for something (i.e. the collapse of the Obama Presidency) doesn't mean it's going to happen, no matter how fervent the wish from the President's opponents.


- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA




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