What’s The Prez Made Of?

It’s one of these annoying conceits that at key moments people write editorials and posts on ‘what the president should say’, ‘what the president should do’. But with the recognition that it’s an annoying tradition, let me take a stab at it. Not because there’s any reason he should listen to me but because it’s a convenient way to explain what I believe is a sensible way forward.

In the spirit of bipartisanship the president admires, let’s go back to President Bush in 2006 and 2007. The Republicans and the president were hit with a staggering defeat in November 2006 in an election fought overwhelmingly on public dissatisfaction with the Iraq War. The president said that he’d heard the people’s message and proceeded to dramatically expand the US troop commitment in Iraq.What you think of the surge is a separate point. But the example is an instructive one. Especially because it’s an example that President Obama could follow with a far better argument that he is listening to the message of the people than President Bush ever had with Iraq.

The central problem the president is laboring under is the fact that the economy remains in a shambles. And unemployment remains at a toxic 10%. Beyond that though the Democrats are suffering because they have shown voters an image of fecklessness and inability to deliver results at a moment of great public anxiety and suffering. Big changes provoke great anxiety, especially in such a divided society. But Democrats are not just having dealing with the ideological divisions in the country — which is what the Tea Party movement is about. They’re also losing a big swathe of the population that is losing faith that the Democrats can govern, that they can even deliver on the reforms and policies they say are necessary for the national good. As I wrote earlier, this is about meta-politics. If the Democrats, either from the left or the right, walk away from reform, they will get slaughtered in November. They’ll get it from the people who want reform, from the people who never wanted reform and from sensible people all over who just think they can’t get anything done.

What the Democrats — and a lot of this is on the White House — have done is get so deep into the inside game of legislative maneuvering, this and that ‘gang’ of senators and a lot of other nonsense that they’ve let themselves out of sync with the public mood and the people’s needs.

The president needs to find way to say, we’ve heard you. We’ve gotten so focused on working the Washington channels to get this thing done and we need to be more focused on the public’s mood and urgency. Well, we’ve heard you. We’re going to stop playing around and get this thing done. And then we’re going to work on getting Americans back to work. We know the urgency of the moment and we know you expect results.

I’ve written this quickly. I would not consider it a polished version of anything the president should say. But I think the gist is right. This is the biggest testing time the president has yet faced. It could be a key turning point in his presidency. Over the next forty-eight hours the president is going to come under withering pressure to walk away from reform. It’ll come from the left and the right, and in various different flavors. It will come from shocking directions. The president is going to have to find a way to say, No. We’re doing this. He’ll need to stand down a lot of cowardly and foolish people in his own party. He’ll have to stand down the vast and formless force of establishment punditry and just say, No. We’re going to do this. And he’s going to have to make the case to the public, not necessarily convince all those who have doubts about health care reform but make clear that he thinks this is the right direction for the country and because he thinks it’s the right thing to do that he’s going to make it happen.