Barack Obama, Phone Home

AFTER his “shellacking,” President Obama had to do something. But who had the bright idea of scheduling his visit to India for right after this election? The Democrats’ failure to create jobs was at the heart of the shellacking. Nothing says “outsourcing” to the American public more succinctly than India. But the White House didn’t figure this out until the eve of Obama’s Friday departure, when it hastily rebranded his trip as a jobs mission. Perhaps the president should visit one of the Indian call centers policing Americans’ credit-card debts to feel our pain.

Optics matter. If Washington is tumbling into a political crisis as the recovery continues to lag, maybe the president shouldn’t get out of Dodge. If the White House couldn’t fill a 13,000-seat arena in blue Cleveland the weekend before the midterms, maybe it shouldn’t have sent the president there. If an administration charged with confronting a Great Recession knew that its nominee for secretary of the Treasury serially cut corners on his taxes, maybe it should have considered other options. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Well, here we are.

True, the big things matter more than the optics. Unfortunately, they are a mess too.

You can’t win an election without a coherent message. Obama, despite his administration’s genuine achievements, didn’t have one. The good news — for him, if not necessarily a straitened country — is that the G.O.P. doesn’t have one either. This explains the seemingly irrational calculus of Tuesday’s exit polls. Voters gave Democrats and Republicans virtually identical favorability ratings while voting for the G.O.P. They gave Obama a slightly higher approval rating than either political party even as they punished him. This is a snapshot of a whiplashed country that (understandably) doesn’t know whose butt to kick first. It means that Obama can make a comeback, but only if he figures out what he has to come back from and where he has to go.

The president’s travails are not merely a “communications problem.” They’re also a governance problem — which makes them a gift to opponents who prefer no governance at all. You can’t govern if you can’t tell the country where you are taking it. The plot of Obama’s presidency has been harder to follow than “Inception.”

Health care reform remains at the root of this chaos. Obama has never explained why a second-tier priority for him in the 2008 campaign leapt to the top of his must-do list in March 2009. For much of the subsequent year spent fighting over it, he still failed to pick up the narrative thread. He delayed so long in specifying his own priorities for the bill that his opponents filled the vacuum for him, making fictions like “death panels” stick while he waited naïvely for bipartisanship to prevail. In 2010, Obama and most Democrats completed their transformation of a victory into a defeat by running away from their signature achievement altogether.

They couldn’t talk about their other feat — the stimulus, also poorly explained by the White House from the start — because the 3.3 million jobs it saved are dwarfed by the intractable unemployment rate. Nor could they brag stirringly about a financial regulatory reform effort that left too many devilish details unresolved, too many too-big-to-fail banks standing and nearly all the crash culprits unaccountable.

With a cupboard this bare, Blame Bush became the Democratic message by default. But a message that neither boasts of any achievements nor offers any specifics for the future is a political suicide note.

Blame Bush was also a part of the G.O.P. message this year. When Republican candidates weren’t trashing Obama, they routinely deplored the spending excesses of their own Bush-era Congress and ripped into the villainous Bush- Paulson TARP as if their leaders hadn’t all signed on to it. The rest of the G.O.P. message — typified by the “Pledge to America” peddled by John Boehner — was as incoherent as the Democrats’. Traditional Republican boilerplate — lower taxes, less spending, smaller government — was chanted louder and louder, to pander to the Tea Party rebels, but with zero specifics of how it might be carried out. The midterm strategy was appropriately labeled “80-20” by the House majority leader in-waiting Eric Cantor — 80 percent attacks on Democrats, 20 percent proposing a G.O.P. plan.

But there was no plan. Even in victory, most Republicans can’t explain exactly what they want to do besides cut taxes and repeal health care (a quixotic goal, given the president’s veto pen and the law’s more popular provisions). A riotous dissection of this empty agenda could be found on election night on MSNBC, where a Republican stalwart, Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, called for “across the board” spending cuts. Under relentless questioning from Chris Matthews, she exempted defense and entitlements from the ax, thereby eliminating some 85 percent of the federal budget from her fiscal diligence.

Pressed about Social Security and Medicare, Blackburn would only promise to have an “adult conversation” with Americans on the subject. That’s the new Republicanese for punting. The G.O.P. budget guru, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, also called for a “conversation” in a specifics-deficient op-ed manifesto in The Financial Times last week. Boehner and Mitch McConnell, in their postelection press conference, declared no fewer than 11 times that they were eager to “listen” to the American people. At the very least they are listening to a message guru like Frank Luntz.

Were they to listen to Americans, they’d learn that they favor budget cuts mainly in theory, not in fact. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this summer found that three-quarters of Americans don’t want to cut federal aid to education — high on the hit list of most fiscal hawks — and more than 60 percent are opposed to raising the Social Security retirement age to 70. Even in the Republican-tilted electorate of last week, exit polls found that only 39 percent favored extending the Bush tax cuts to all Americans, including those making $250,000-plus. Yet it’s a full Bush tax cut extension that’s the entirety of the G.O.P. jobs program in 2010. This will end “uncertainty” among the wealthiest taxpayers, you see, and a gazillion jobs will trickle down magically from Jackson Hole.

Obama has a huge opening here — should he take it. He could call the Republicans’ bluff by forcing them to fill in their own blanks. He could start by offering them what they want, the full Bush tax cuts, in exchange for a single caveat: G.O.P. leaders would be required to stand before a big Glenn Beck-style chalkboard — on C-Span, or, for that matter, Fox News — and list, with dollar amounts, exactly which budget cuts would pay for them. Once they hit the first trillion — or even $100 billion — step back and let the “adult conversation” begin!

Better still, the president should open this bargaining session to the full spectrum of his opposition. As he said at his forlorn news conference on Wednesday, he is ready to consider policy ideas “whoever proposes them.” So why not cut to the chase and invite Congressional Tea Party heavyweights like Jim DeMint, Rand Paul and Michele Bachmann to the White House along with the official G.O.P. leadership? They will offer the specifics that Boehner and McConnell are too shy to divulge.

DeMint published a book last year detailing his view that Social Security be privatized to slow America’s descent into socialism. Paul can elaborate on his ideas for reducing defense spending and cutting back on drug law enforcement. Bachmann will explain her plans for weaning Americans off Medicare.

Maybe some of the big Tea Party ideas will be as popular as the Tea Partiers claim them to be. We won’t know until Congress tries to enact them. Nor will we know Obama’s true measure until he provides a coherent alternative of his own about how he intends to put Americans back to work and keep them in their homes. If he has such a plan, few, if any, Americans have any idea what it is.

To do this, he’ll have to break out of the White House bubble he lamented again last week. He can no longer limit interactions with actual working Americans to photo ops on factory floors or outsource them to a “Middle Class Task Force” led by Joe Biden. He must move beyond his Ivy League-Wall Street comfort zone to overhaul his economic team. If George Bush could announce Donald Rumsfeld’s replacement the day after his 2006 midterm thumping, why is the naming of Lawrence Summers’s much-needed successor receding into eternity?

In the 1946 midterms, the unpopular and error-prone rookie president Harry Truman, buffeted by a different set of economic dislocations, watched his party lose both chambers of Congress (including 54 seats in the House) to a G.O.P. that then moved steadily to the right in its determination to cut government spending and rip down the New Deal safety net. Two years after this Democratic wipeout, despite a hostile press and a grievously divided party, Truman roared back, in part by daring the Republican Congress to enact its reactionary plans. He won against all odds, as David McCullough writes in “Truman,” because “there was something in the American character that responded to a fighter.”

Surely there are dozens of supporters reassuring Obama with exactly this Truman scenario this weekend. But if he lacks the will to fight, he might as well just take his time and enjoy the sights of Mumbai.

Frank Rich, New York Times


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