Obama's re­bound may turn on pick­ing a fight

Other times he must pick sharp, par­ti­san fights that high­light his agenda and iso­late foes. So far, Obama has proven adept at nei­ther. A pres­i­dent most com­fort­able in muted tones must learn to gov­ern in Tech­ni­color.

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - Michael Wald­man

These days, ev­ery­one has ad­vice for Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. Some urge com­pro­mise with the Repub­li­cans. Oth­ers de­mand he fight back. Ac­tu­ally, both camps are right --and wrong.

To sur­vive, re­vive and even pre­vail, Obama must to do two things at once. Some­times, he must work with Repub­li­cans -not just find a tepid mid­dle­ground, but en­thu­si­as­ti­cally link arms. Other times he must pick sharp, par­ti­san fights that high­light his agenda and iso­late foes. So far, Obama has proven adept at nei­ther. A pres­i­dent most com­fort­able in muted tones must learn to gov­ern in Tech­ni­color.

In any White House, it's no fun af­ter a shel­lack­ing. I worked for Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton the last time the Democrats were re­pu­di­ated, in 1994. In the mo­rose weeks af­ter that de­ba­cle, I wrote a memo to the gloomy pres­i­dent, dig­ging into his­tory to see how oth­ers fared af­ter a midterm plunge. The re­sults were sur­pris­ing.

Many had suf­fered sim­i­lar set­backs. Harry Tru­man lost the Congress in his first midterm in 1946. (The Repub­li­can slo­gan: "Had enough?") Richard Nixon never con­trolled Congress in the first place, but lost many seats in 1970 and was con­sid­ered a sure loser for re­elec­tion. Ron­ald Rea­gan lost 28 House seats, was crush­ingly un­pop­u­lar, and faced 10.8 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment. Clin­ton, of course, lost both houses of Congress in a sharp re­pu­di­a­tion.

These chief ex­ec­u­tives found a way to re­assert lead­er­ship and win re­elec­tion. How?

All pressed for­ward with is­sues where it was ac­tu­ally eas­ier to suc­ceed with op­po­si­tion help. For Tru­man, it was the Cold War pol­icy against the Soviet Union. For Nixon, it was do­mes­tic en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion and de­tente. Only Nixon could go to China, but it helped to have Democrats cheer­ing. Rea­gan im­me­di­ately em­braced a bi­par­ti­san plan, cre­ated with Demo­cratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill, to save So­cial Se­cu­rity.

For Clin­ton, the key area of cross-par­ti­san agree­ment was wel­fare re­form. As a can­di­date he had urged an "end to wel­fare as we know it." But he never could have crafted re­form with mostly lib­eral back­ing. Clin­ton twice ve­toed the plan sent to him by the Repub­li­can Congress, but then signed a deal days be­fore the 1996 Demo­cratic con­ven­tion.

But then --cru­cially --ev­ery one of these pres­i­dents drew sharp, par­ti­san lines of con­flict. As we all know, Tru­man launched his whis­tle stop tour to de­nounce the "do noth­ing Congress." He called law­mak­ers into spe­cial ses­sion and de­manded they pass their own plat­form, then mocked them when they failed. Nixon stepped up cul­tural as­saults on be­half of his "silent ma­jor­ity."

Clin­ton ve­toed the Repub­li­can bud­get on be­half of "Medi­care, Med­i­caid, ed­u­ca­tion and the en­vi­ron­ment." His stand­off with House Speaker Newt Gin­grich dur­ing the govern­ment shut­down boosted him nine points in the polls and pro­pelled him to re-elec­tion. These were not mud­dled at­tempts to find com­mon ground. Nor were they blun­der­buss op­po­si­tion. At any moment these suc­cess­ful chief ex­ec­u­tives chose clear co­op­er­a­tion --or picked a fight. Ob­servers were rarely con­fused about which was which.

Does Obama see this? And can he fol­low through? Early omens are mixed.

For starters, few of his own ma­jor goals will be bet­ter ac­com­plished with Repub­li­can help. Ed­u­ca­tion re­form, for ex­am­ple, may thrill con­ser­va­tives more than teach­ers unions, but that is­sue rarely rises to the top tier of fed­eral con­cerns. Long-term deficit re­duc­tion or tax re­form may unite Obama with the op­po­si­tion party, but nei­ther has been a core part of his pub­lic phi­los­o­phy. Also, he may lack even the most ba­sic ne­go­ti­at­ing part­ner among Repub­li­can lead­ers. The Party of No found elec­toral suc­cess. Im­mi­gra­tion re­form has busi­ness back­ing, and might have been a likely can­di­date for com­pro­mise, but it is wildly un­pop­u­lar with the na­tivist Tea Party.

Obama must over­come his own tem­per­a­ment as well. This is pol­i­tics, not psy­chob­a­b­ble. From the time of his 2004 con­ven­tion speech, he shaped his whole po­lit­i­cal per­sona around the idea of eras­ing the di­vide be­tween con­ser­va­tive "red" and lib­eral "blue" Amer­ica. Obama has seemed un­com­fort­able when forced to pick a par­ti­san fight. At the same time, it is hard to think of an in­stance when he star­tled us with an un­ex­pected con­ser­va­tive stance. The cal­en­dar gives Obama lit­tle time to re­group. And it was un­for­tu­nate that his first step was to call a ne­go­ti­a­tion ses­sion with Congress on taxes, a plunge back into leg­isla­tive minu­tiae that can only blur prin­ci­ple.

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