Commentary Magazine


Do the Job, Mr. President

Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post joins the pundits who huff and puff about the American people, empathizing with politicians who must figure out what it is those darn voters really want. The public is fickle, you see, because they want contradictory things. It goes like this: “They want everyone to have access to affordable health insurance, but they’re wary of expanding the role of government.” Or, “They want to do something about global warming, but not if it raises energy prices.” Actually, it’s pretty easy to resolve these “contradictions.” Americans would rather do nothing about health care at this point. As for global warming, they seem fine with developing alternative energy like nuclear power (which the Obama team acknowledged by providing a loan guarantee to build the first new domestic nuclear power plant in decades). But it sounds so much more sophisticated to complain that the rubes are really impossible to deal with. (Sort of the punditocracy’s equivalent of high schoolers complaining about their parents.)

That bit of voter-dissing out of the way, Pearlstein then concedes that Obama has been a bust as president. First, he does not think much of the “more campaign tactics!” approach to recovering Obama’s political footing. He warns, “He will not demonstrate that leadership by running around to carefully staged events in which he tells ordinary voters what he thinks they want to hear. Nor will he demonstrate it by redoubling efforts of his PR war room to respond to every attack or piece of Republican disinformation with overwhelming rhetorical force.” And Obama goofed (Pearlstein calls it “Obama’s singular mistake”) by letting Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi run the show. “It should be obvious now that the president cannot leave it to Congress to sort things out.” So what should he do? Why be president — govern. Should Obama not know what that entails, Pearlstein spells it out:

For the next several months, he needs to create a sense of urgency and expectation, consulting widely and privately with Republicans and Democrats and interested parties who care more about getting things done than winning the next election. Based on those conversations and his own sense of what the public will accept, he needs to put forward a set of compromise proposals on jobs, health care, financial reform and the budget. And then he needs to park himself in the President’s Room at the Capitol, along with top aides and Cabinet members, and refuse to leave until he has put together working majorities for each proposal — with the help of legislative leaders if possible, but without them if necessary.

In case you were wondering, yes, that’s what being president requires and what his predecessors all did. It’s a bit pathetic if not scary that pundits have to spell out what the job of president is after Obama’s a full year into the job. But I think Pearlstein has a point: Obama doesn’t understand the necessity (if one is to be a successful president) to formulate detailed policy, build support for it, and help usher it through the legislative process. Obama imagines instead that it’s all just like campaigning — stage events, attack the opponents, bask in the media attention, etc. It is a fundamentally unserious vision of the presidency — and one, it turns out, that is unsustainable.

Obama, of course, would also have to shove overboard the substance of his left-wing agenda. But most of all, he just needs to get down to work.

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