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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The Chicago Machine way:
"Lets pick a minority guy, half parsonable, half articulate, lets get the hood accent off, send him to Harvard, train him in c-organizers skills, read a decent telemprompter, pick a catchy Hope and Change slogan, and sell it to the American public like the next Messiah, heck what could go wrong? And we get to play the race card to kingdom come...."

Hows that working for you America?

Obama has no fred left. His "legacy" is shot. If he were true to his policies and not mostly to himself, he would admit he was terribly inept, agree to start over on health care, and do the things mentioned in this article. This would boost Hillary's chances in '16. But he won't, because he is so full of himself that he will never admit he was wrong. His much-ballyhooed "apology" was a joke. He was caught with his hand in the cookie jar and said he was just checking to see if it was a real cookie.
His other problem is that now, unlike before, people won't believe him when he makes outlandish statements and blames others, even if they are true. He abused his trust.
No, among his other faults now very apparent, his worst may be his narcissism. He will not admit he was wrong, he hates those who disagree with him and will never compromise. I'm afraid he will go down as possibly the worst president in history by any standards.

There is one very big problem with the suggestion given by this article. The president's signature legislation - ObamaCare - is the biggest piece of job killing legislation ever devised since the Smoot Hawley Tariff Act. And the current "recovery" is in its 5th year, and surely will be getting tired soon. Unless the President is willing to repeal ObamaCare in exchange for some big piece of legislation, I can't see what he can do. And even if he is willing to do that, I still can't see what he can do. Most of our economic problems are systemic, long-term, and unfixable without decades of sustained effort.

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

That should be easy--the biggest impediments to job growth in the US are the uncertainties and expected immense burden of Obamacare, out-of-control dictates from governmental agencies like the EPA, the NLRB, and endless other federal busy-bodies, and outrageous corporate taxation. Finding Republicans willing to rid the country of these burdens shouldn't be hard.

Obama is not interested in sincere meetings with the Republicans. Everything is political to him...a game to be won over his "enemies."
But 0webama is only half the story of The Biggest Fraud in American History." The other half is the Mainstream News Media who did all they could to get him elected and continue to look away from his criminal acts and astonishing arrogance and incompetence.

I find the notion of a quiet international landscape frightening, since it reflects the generally oblivious nature of Democrats through time with regard to foreign affairs. Quiet? The Iranians are building the bomb. The Egyptians are in disarray and cooling to America. The Russians are installing missiles in eastern europe. Obama gave up our missile defense there early on. The Chinese have declared control, over the Japan Sea airspace challenging our alliance with Japan. And, of course, there's always the North Koreans. The only reason the author says the international scene is quiet in any way is because Obama is clueless on foreign policy and has let the balance we had kept in the world go to hell.

So, the author suggests more Obama dictating. More likely unconstitutional executive acts. More abuse of agencies and their powers along with those of the executive. First, Obama couldn't create a successful and helpful domestic policy if George Bush suggested one. Or, Hillary for that matter. Rather, what any effort like this will cause is to increase the probability of impeachment. Many of us knew this was coming down the pike years ago. Obama would lose the House and then the Senate. When he lost the House, he began violating the Constitution. Not enough to cause impeachment, but pushing every boundary to the limit. Now, his failures and lies will cost the Senate and everyone knows it. He will do just as the author suggests and just as we expected. Obama's frustration and narcissism will force him to take even more drastic executive action or be forced to spend the next 3 years playing golf.

When Obama goes down this path, it is a path to disaster, not that I care for him or his supporters. The more outlandish his actions, the more likely that the Democrats themselves in Congress will side with the GOP and we all know where that would end.

"What the president should push for during his final 37 months in office—it's not what the conventional wisdom would have you believe. "

A time machine so he can go back and tell even more "convincing" lies?

Whether it's dekiibeate ornot, this Presidenti=operates as of he had a defeat-wish, just short of a death wish. In 2912, that disastrous first debate when he looked triumphant. In 2013, the disastrous Obamacare rollout when the Dems looked ready to capture the House. It's as if Rahm Emanuel called him up to say, "Look, if you go on this way you'll win so big that your real Opposition will be the Progressive Caucus, and they'll be constantly pushing you to the left. Wouldn't you rather skate on thin ice, help the GOP almost win, and keep the corporations happy by letting the Tea Party push you to the right? Voila!
-- i Arthur Waskow

This President operates as if he had a defeat-wish, just short of a death wish. In 2912, that disastrous first debate just when he was looking run-away triumphant. In 2013, the disastrous Obamacare rollout just when the Dems looked ready to capture the House. It's as if Rahm Emanuel called him up to say, "Look, if you go on this way you'll win so big that your real Opposition will be the Progressive Caucus, and they'll be constantly pushing you to the left. Wouldn't you rather skate on thin ice, help the GOP almost win, and keep the corporations happy by letting the Tea Party push you to the right? " -- Voila!
-- Arthur Waskow

Great idea! Sorry that Obama is moving the Federal Government in the opposite direction.

Yes, I know he thinks he's tried. His $850 billion "stimulus" that "saved" 2.5 million jobs (that works out to $300,000 per job, and there's zero evidence that it saved anything like that number), "shovel ready" jobs that turned out "aren't shovel ready", the Solyndra mess, the failed "Cash for Clunkers" scheme, the ethanol boondoggle, the unkept promise of "5 million green jobs", the pledge that Obamacare would also create jobs, etc. etc. etc. Over a trillion spent, and nothing to show for it.

Why not? Because while Obama is floundering with these woefully designed efforts on one hand, with the other he's passing Dodd Frank (which means that in the last 3 years, only ONE Federal bank has gotten a charter), he's blocking drilling in ANWR and the Gulf, he's stopping Keystone XL, he's crushing the coal industry, he's using the National Labor Relations Board to punish non-union employers, he's publishing thousands of pages of new regulations and requirements, etc. etc. etc. It's the old Reagan line: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it. Punish success. Reward failure. And then wonder why government doesn't move at "private sector velocity." Stand agog as your website fails, only now realizing that "buying insurance is really hard" and that "40 pages of specs make it difficult — it’s the reason why federal IT programs are chronically over budget and behind schedule."

If Obama wants the economy to thrive, the biggest contribution he can make is to get out of the way.

If Obama wants to reclaim any semblance of a legacy other than the moribund mantle worn by Jimmy Carter, he should support a repeal effort for Obamacare, abolish the EPA, the Energy Department, sign the Keystone Pipeline, repeal Dodd-Frank, reform entitlements (basically endorse the Ryan Plan), then get out of the way.

He would be hailed as one of the greatest Presidents in history for realizing his failures and moving to correct them.

I'm looking forward to the sequel to this article: "How to bring back the Edsel."

Media created Obama.

Media can NOT save Obama.

I have yet to meet an average American with enough common sense who is excited to pay MORE for Obamacare.
Many of my Liberal friends are very successful and pulls $200K+ a year.
They are all of the opinion that the RICH are not paying their Fair Share.
When I point out to them that they are in the TOP 1% group, they all get angry at me.

American media cannot convince anyone that the FREE condoms are free, especially when the first $6300 of your coverage comes out of your pocket. And then up to 40% of condom cost is shifted on to you as co-pays!

Obama's goose is cooked.

Only God can save Obama.
But then the loony left doesn't believe in God!
Their only salvation lies with BIG BANG now.

Americans don't want health care! They would rather suffer and die. They would rather lose everything and be forced to declare bankruptcy than have access to health care! You betcha! We love paying into insurance premiums only to have our policies cancelled if we should dare to need medical care. We have to get back to protecting unrestrained profiteering by insurance companies because, well heck, they're worth it.

Big goofer, take your meds.

A jobs crusade? LOL! Really? For Obama? What nonsense. Obama doesn't care about jobs. The only time Obama talks about jobs is when he's in trouble in some other part of his failed agenda. Then he suddenly talks about pivoting to jobs, or green shoots, or recover summer....I think we had 3 of those didn't we. A jobs crusade from Obama? Remember Obama's jobs counsel that we found out he never bothered to meet with during the election campaign? Well as soon as Obama won reelection he got rid of that thing. Face it. After 5 years of Obama we have the worst economic growth and worst UNEMPLOYMENT for the longest period of time since the Great Depression. Under Obama we have the lowest percentage of Americans in the workforce in 40 years, and the highest level of poverty in over a generation. Obama has killed jobs by the millions. High paying jobs like for the Keystone XL Pipeline and development of clean burning natural gas on federal lands. No President since the Great Depression has as miserable a record as Obama on jobs and the economy. When Obama and the Democrats in Congress aren't LYING to us they are busy killing jobs. Remember that stimulus bill and all those infrastructure shovel ready jobs? LIES all LIES. Obama gave all that money to public employee unions and campaign contributors like the ones that owned Solyndra. Of course Obama has borrowed and spent like no President in all of history, but not to create jobs. Obama prefers people without jobs stuck on disability, welfare, and Obamastamps. People who are totally dependent on the Government and Obamastamps to feed their families can be counted on to vote for Obama and the Democrats regardless of the LIES. Obama isn't going to work on jobs his last 3 years he will remain dedicated to transforming our nation into a giant soul sucking authoritarian People's Republican where we are all equally poor. Count on that! NOT ON JOBS!

This article is absolutely ridiculous! Its centered on the premise that Republicans are going to be willing to work with this President on something. There is ZERO evidence of that happening. This article is stupid!

Did they just pass a budget for the first time in seven years? PS It was Senate Democrats that failed to produce one for SEVEN years.

Excellent article in Wall Street Journal. Here's the line that caught my attention and pretty well sums up the Obama White House: "The United States Secret Service allowed the president of the United States to stand for 19 minutes next to the famous sign-language interpreter who, it was quickly revealed, was not only a fraud but a schizophrenic con man who is now said to have been involved in two deaths. In fairness, the event was in another country and the Secret Service wasn’t strictly in charge. That said, it still looks like very basic negligence, as if no one is keeping enough of an eye on the Secret Service, no one’s checking the quality of the advance or sending emails asking: “Hey, what do we know about the sign language guy—any chance he’s a mentally ill criminal?”

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.

Every president is faced with Sisyphean tasks, and there are plenty of Republicans willing to negotiate a grand bargain on jobs. I fear though that Obama's not up to the job; it's just not in his makeup. He's a thinker, not a doer, nor is he a leader, certainly not in the mold of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. It's a shame. Eight years pretty much wasted.

"Not in the mode of Reagan or Clinton.." thank goodness! Those two were leaders in upward wealth redistribution. Reagan led the "trickle down" agenda. By the time Clinton rolled into town, it was obvious that trickle-down was a dead failure. Clinton responded by saying, "So, just throw our surplus population off the cliff, and let's not worry about it." Country club libs are still applauding.

The failure rests squarely with today's libs/media. What should have been a populist movement that focused on repairing the damage to our economy/society became a cheer-leading session for the better off alone, the middle class. The nation has been in similar messes before. Each time, the poor and middle class ultimately united to push back, to everyone's benefit. Not this time. Remember Occupy? What began as an extraordinary people's movement was promptly redefined, largely by lib media, as a movement of middle class workers alone. So, the rest of us walked away. That was the end of any movement for legitimate change. Liberal media has waved the Middle Class Only banner while erasing the poor from the discussion. The middle class, those with incomes roughly in the $40k to $50k range, decided that the jobless on $4k aid were living in intolerable luxury, and cut them off. After shipping out the bulk of our manufacturing jobs in recent decades, Clinton ordered the poor to "find a job, or starve." The middle class applauded.

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