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 do two things at once. Sometimes, he must work with Republicans -- not just find a tepid middle-ground, 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.”
Taking On Gingrich
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.
Beat by McConnell
Earmarks may mark another missed moment. While these spending bills are but a fraction of a sliver of the federal budget, they have proven a magnet for corruption. Obama could have reached out to the Tea Party. Instead, even Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader and Congress’ most obstinate foe of reform, has leapt past him by backing an earmark ban.
In coming months, Obama will have to find a way to seem enthusiastic about long-term deficit reduction even as he urges short-term action on jobs. And he will need to unveil both personas with gusto at his State of the Union Address in January.
So, Mr. President: on some things, join hands with Republicans; on others, go to the mattresses. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Let’s hope Obama is as smart as advertised.
(Michael Waldman, former director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton, is executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the author of “My Fellow Americans.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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