The Best Policy

Don’t Waste the Crisis!

Six strategies that could save Obama’s ambitious reform agenda.

As he prepares for a difficult State of the Union address, President Obama should take small solace in the oft-quoted and accurate observation of his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt that “[i]t is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles. … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes [up] short again and again … but who does actually strive to do the deeds.”

President Obama is in the arena, one that may now feel like the Roman Colosseum, surrounded if not by lions then by second guessers, wavering allies, and gloating Republicans. Dire as things may seem, he should recall that poll numbers are like bungee jumps—the public mood will swing wildly and rapidly, often for reasons that do not fit into the rational and fact-based world with which Obama seems most comfortable.

It would be grievous error for the president to abandon the broad reform agenda that brought him to the White House in exchange for small-bore reforms that could muster the appearance of bipartisan support. The changes we now need in financial services, health care, and education are still fundamental.

The greatest risk he faces is that he will follow the easier path of seeking reconciliation with a newly empowered Republican party. The GOP has refused every offer to dance with the president so far, and surely will not cooperate now unless the president surrenders on essential principles. Indeed, the Republican critique of core aspects of the president’s agenda, and Scott Brown’s views in particular, have been impossible to square with either fact or reality: Medicare recipients demanding that government get out of their health care system; Brown supporting a popular Massachusetts health care system that is the foundation of the federal reform concept, yet virulently opposing the federal bill; Republican leadership claiming populist sympathies at the very moment it opposes meaningful banking reform.

It is time for President Obama to imitate Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt: define the progressive agenda and impose party discipline, use the 59 votes in the Senate—still an overwhelming majority—and an equally robust majority in the House to make every effort to pass the critical pieces of the Democratic agenda and then let the Republicans try to counter.

To succeed, he must follow the following principles:

  1. Win the negotiations he enters. He has seemed too desperate for a deal. The result has been that all principles were up for auction. Whenever big pharma, bankers, trade unions, or Senator Ben Nelson showed up at the White House, everybody went home with a prize except the average citizen. The president must learn to walk away from the table and let the other side sweat.
  2. Impose real party discipline. Although this may be harder now, it is critical. Too many special-interest groups within the party are holding the president hostage, preventing any clarity in defining the agenda. Unity begins and ends with firm leadership. Wasn’t this supposed to be Rahm Emanuel’s expertise?
  3. Get ahead of the populist rage—not behind it. The president must show the passion that got him where he is; otherwise, he cedes angry voters to the Republicans. Democrats should be embarrassed that Sarah Palin and Scott Brown have been the primary political beneficiaries of the Democratic failure to articulate a real middle class agenda thus far. The failed communications strategy of the White House over the past year has permitted the new administration to be portrayed as the voice of the status quo rather than the coalition of change.
  4. Define a new social contract. Roosevelt did this during the Great Depression. It was not just a series of regulations that defined Roosevelt’s response; it was a newly formed set of relationships that bound us together as a community. The social contract of 2006 that let bankers get $50 million paychecks by gambling with tax dollars doesn’t work anymore, but the president hasn’t yet articulated an alternative.
  5. Redefine the financial services sector. Obama has finally begun to do this with the “Volcker Rule,” which will impose structural reform and eliminate the proprietary trading with taxpayer-insured money.
  6. Find an economic leadership team that believes passionately in the principles defined above. If that means replacing Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, so be it. The Summers-Geithner team has brought the president to the precipice. The public has punished the president for meeting every bank need while the needs of the public were set aside. The bad choices made by Geithner and Summers have been well-chronicled, but perhaps most egregious was the way they have repeatedly made it appear that Wall Street is running economic policy. 

If all these suggestions fail and the Republicans successfully filibuster, thereby preventing enactment of a meaningful reform agenda, so be it. Then voters will face a clear choice in the November elections. That is a far preferable resolution than the alternative—incrementalism at a time when fundamental change is needed. This crisis will have been wasted if the White House now opts, at the first sign of electoral upset, to run for cover.