A lot can happen in 15 months. But I believe this September will be Barack Obama's time of reckoning. Either he will engage and lead the American public -- and continue to engage and lead it until the election -- or he will lose next November, regardless of his opponent. And so, I thought I'd join the crowd offering a bit of advice.
Mr. President, everyone knows you were dealt a bad hand when you came into office. And, aside from your openly hostile and occasionally extortionist GOP foes, most Americans have been awfully patient. They understood the mess you inherited (polls, even recent ones, blame George W. Bush more for the country's predicament). They recognize the intransigence of your opposition. They have given you a long time to establish your own brand and style.
But they are out of patience. They've lost track of what you stand for and have become exasperated with your unwillingness or inability to take a position, explain it and fight for it. And many are hurting economically. I don't believe most Americans blame you for creating the mess we're in. But the majority is losing faith in your ability to lead us out of it.
If you want Americans to give you four more years, Mr. President, they need to see some of the hope and change your campaign promised. That demands a change in approach.
As Charles Blow
writes in The New York Times, "Great leadership isn't shaped in the absence of opposition but in the presence of it."
The first step is to recognize where things headed off course.
Immediately after getting elected on a slogan "change you can believe in," you forgot those you should have called on to push for that change. Instead of starting your equivalent of FDR's Fireside Chats to explain your views to the struggling American people, you stayed in the oval office, shut out the press and forgot the public as you set out to govern. Mistake No. 1.
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Instead of staking strong positions -- on the stimulus or on health care, for example -- and making clear repeatedly why you were taking them, you stood on the sidelines while the Democratic Congressional leadership whittled policy deals that the American public never fully understood or appreciated. Mistake No. 2.
You compromised with your commanders on Afghanistan, adding troops in a country that can never be conquered. And even though you got Bin Laden, a big moment in your presidency, you're still not sure how to extricate yourself from what has now become your war. Mistake No. 3.
You undermined public trust by doing next to nothing to go after the bankers and traders who mortgaged the country's future with flim-flam reverse mortgage deals and bundling of junk bonds. Mistake No. 4.
You found a moral -- and potentially winning -- position before the last election: the need of the wealthy to bear their fair share of taxes. But then you stood by again while the Democrats in Congress retreated and allowed the Bush tax cuts for everyone to be extended. Mistake No. 5.
And, most recently, you let yourself be held hostage, allowing the Tea Party to call virtually all the shots in the debt-ceiling debate. The result of that debacle is still reverberating, from the Standard & Poor's credit rating downgrade to the tumbling global stock market ticker. Mistake No. 6.
I know you've been reading the polls. Recently they've been dismal. The latest Gallup poll
finds barely one in four Americans approve of the way you are handling the economy. Another poll found that the enthusiasm of Democrats
about voting in the next election has dropped below 50 percent, a record low for answers to such a question. And early polling of your support in key Democratic states, such as Pennsylvania, are perilously low
It's not that Americans wish you ill will or that they question your intentions. It's your spine that worries them.
I, for one, believe that you truly did want to re-esatablish a government of reason, a government where sound ideas, discussed vigorously, could lead to compromises good for the country. But you've been slow to realize that this generation of Republican leadership wants nothing but your defeat. Mitch McConnell
has bluntly said as much. So it's time -- past time -- for Plan B, a clear, firm and unrelenting message of what you believe must be done to turn around the U.S. economy.
And once you have such a plan, it's equally important that you communicate it daily to the public in some way, and, when the Republicans block you at every turn, that you make clear what they are doing and how.
It is time, in short, Mr. President, to fight and lead. In all likelihood, gridlock will be gridlock until election day whether you attempt to compromise or to fight. But if you fight the good fight, you may still be standing after the election to lead another, more productive battle.
It's hardly for me to tell you what your battle plan should be. But here are a few things I'd love to hear:
1. Promote a plan to put Americans back to work and to pay for it by rolling back the Bush tax cuts on couples earning more than $250,000 (a savings of $700 billion in a decade). In a piece at Commondreams.com, journalist Michael Winship
references a report suggesting that a single year of restored taxes on the rich could finance public service jobs that would cut unemployment in half. And there's lots of valuable work to be done, repairing schools, cleaning National Parks and paving potholes, to name a few.
2. Fight to extend the tax cuts on middle class and poorer Americans for another year. Also fight to extend unemployment benefits. People must have money to spend it.
3. Put together a robust and meaningful program to restructure the loans of millions of Americans at risk of losing their homes through foreclosure.
4. Create a program of tax incentives for small businesses that hire people into new jobs.
5. Tie any long-term efforts to limit the debt to the passage of the short-term stimuli outlined above. Cuts in entitlement programs such as Medicare may well be needed and possible. But they should focus not on quick and painful across-the-board trims but on thoughtful (if not painless) restructuring of the quality of care (a new and better system of rewarding preventative care, perhaps, or of negotiating generic drug costs).
6. Expect Republicans to block you at every turn and use their recalcitrance to win back the American people -- and to show them time and again that the GOP truly is the party of "no."
Let's be honest. In this crazy political climate, it may take a little luck. Unless the global economy stabilizes, you may already be cooked. But unless you emerge as a leader, starting next month, you will almost certainly lose -- no matter what half-baked humdinger of a candidate the Republicans nominate to run against you.
Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He's been a newspaper reporter, columnist, writing coach and editor. His latest book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in January by Rowman & Littlefield.