President Obama is likely to suffer a pummeling defeat on Tuesday. But the road map for his recovery is pretty straightforward.
Josh Haner/The New York Times
First, the president is going to have to win back independents. Liberals are now criticizing him for being too timid. But the fact is that Obama will win 99.9 percent of the liberal vote in 2012, and in a presidential year, liberal turnout will surely be high. On the other hand, he cannot survive the defection of the independents. In 2008, independent voters preferred Democrats by 8 percentage points. Now they prefer Republicans by 20 points, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. Unless Obama wins back these moderate, suburban indies, there will be a Republican president in 2013.
Second, Obama needs to redefine his identity. Bill Clinton gave himself a New Democrat label. Obama has never categorized himself so clearly. This ambiguity was useful in 2008 when people could project whatever they wanted onto him. But it has been harmful since. Obama came to be defined by his emergency responses to the fiscal crisis — by the things he had to do, not by the things he wanted to do. Then he got defined as an orthodox, big government liberal who lacks deep roots in American culture.
Over the next two years, Obama will have to show that he is a traditionalist on social matters and a center-left pragmatist on political ones. Culturally, he will have to demonstrate that even though he comes from an unusual background, he is a fervent believer in the old-fashioned bourgeois virtues: order, self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility. Politically, he will have to demonstrate that he is data-driven — that even though he has more faith in government than most Americans, he will relentlessly oppose programs when the evidence shows they don’t work.
Third, Obama will need to respond to the nation’s fear of decline. The current sour mood is not just caused by high unemployment. It emerges from the fear that America’s best days are behind it. The public’s real anxiety is about values, not economics: the gnawing sense that Americans have become debt-addicted and self-indulgent; the sense that government undermines individual responsibility; the observation that people who work hard get shafted while people who play influence games get the gravy. Obama will have to propose policies that re-establish the link between effort and reward.
Fourth, Obama has to build an institutional structure to support a more moderate approach. Presidents come into office thinking that they will be able to go ahead and enact policies. Then they realize that they can only succeed if there is a vast phalanx of institutions laboring alongside them.
Liberals already have institutions. To be a center-left leader, Obama will have to mobilize independent institutions as well. These don’t exist in Washington, but they do around the nation. Civic organizations, local business groups and municipal leagues run from Orlando to Kansas City to Seattle. These groups are filled with local leaders who lobby for balanced budgets, infrastructure plans and other worthy causes. If Obama can mobilize these groups, he would not only build coalitions, but he would help heal the venomous rift between the White House and business, which is a cancer on his presidency.
Over the next few months, the Republicans will have their time in the sun. On Tuesday, I’ll offer some thoughts on how they can seize the moment. But if Obama is to rebound, he is going to have to suppress his natural competitive instincts. If he gets caught up in the Beltway fight club, the Republicans will emerge as the party of limited government and he’ll emerge as the spokesman for big government — surely a losing proposition.
Instead, he will have to go out and do his own thing. That means every day reinforcing the following narrative: the Republicans are only half right. They want to cut things; I want to cut but also replace things. They want to slash government; I want to restructure it. They want destruction; I want renovation.
Companies like Ford cut wasteful spending while doubling down on productive investment. That’s exactly what the nation has to do over all. There have to be cuts, the president could say, in unaffordable pension commitments, in biofuel subsidies and useless tax breaks. But there also have to be investments in things that will produce a vibrant economy for our children: a simpler tax system with lower rates on investment; more scientific research; a giant effort to improve Hispanic graduation rates; medical courts to rationalize the malpractice system and so on. Instead of being disjointed, as he has been, the president will have to reinforce this turnaround story day after day.
The problem is not that America lacks resources. The problem is that they are misallocated. If Obama can establish credibility as someone who can cut and replace, Election Day 2012 will be rosier for him than Election Day 2010.