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Let's Hope for Audacity

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Let's hope that the president elected in 2012 -- whether it is Mr. Obama again or a Republican -- is a conviction leader capable of providing not just bold words but also bold actions. Our country still needs bold structural reforms: in fiscal policy, tax policy, health care policy, infrastructure investments, and education.

Barack Obama ran a promising and bold 2008 election campaign, but sadly his governing reality has been timid and tepid -- a surprise to millions of his supporters and even to his opponents.

In recent weeks, I have heard (unsolicited, in each case) from longtime Democratic supporters -- mostly CEOs -- who've been exceptionally forthright in expressing their frustrations with President Obama and his administration. Their criticisms mirror what we read in the press, especially in columns by Obama supporters like Maureen Dowd in the New York Times and Richard Cohen in the Washington Post. Likewise, a growing number of public opinion surveys reflecting the president's shrinking support, with his disapproval rating now at a new high of 55%.

Last week, for example, one business leader told me that the president doesn't learn, doesn't take advice, and is an appeaser. "He doesn't take anybody's counsel, except Valerie Jarrett's." Another CEO who has supported the president with both words and contributions told me months ago how unimpressed he was with Ms. Jarrett. This person said how much he liked the president, especially his enthusiasm, but then said that he didn't think the president really "got the message." He said that it was not President Obama's fault that he was saddled with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, but a president's aides, notably Ms. Jarrett, are his responsibility. And a third person wrote to me that President Obama needs to be more of a populist if he wants to rekindle enthusiasm for his presidency.

The typical White House reaction -- no matter who is president -- is to dismiss all such criticism, even that which is intended to be constructive. Yet, the negative views can't all be wrong. In fact, they remind me of what I heard exactly 20 years ago when I worked in the George H.W. Bush White House. And some journalists as well have begun to note parallels between President Obama and one-term President Jimmy Carter.

In my view, the parallels are much closer to what befell George H.W. Bush -- also a much-admired president who had enormous popularity, but who likewise failed to lead and thus served one term.

Let's take, for example, the September 14 special Congressional election in New York's 9th Congressional District. This seat had been held by a Democrat since the 1920s, and the District has sent to Washington prominent Democrats such as Geraldine Ferraro and incumbent Senator Chuck Schumer. The upset victory by Republican Bob Turner over Democrat David Wepin (54% to 46%) should be a stunning wake-up call to the White House and the Democratic Party.

The parallel in the earlier Bush presidency was the upset victory in a special November 1991 election in Pennsylvania to fill the seat of the late U.S. Senator John Heinz. The former Republican Governor of Pennsylvania and former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh was expected to win handily over political novice Harris Wofford, a former college president and national service advocate. Wofford, who had been appointed to the Senate that May, ran explicitly on the issue of health care reform, trounced Thornburgh, and thereby set the stage for the Clinton Presidency whose first major domestic policy initiative was... health care.

Earlier in 1991, after the successful end of the first Persian Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush enjoyed enormous personal popularity -- nearly 90 percent -- and immense political power. He appeared to thunderous applause before a special joint session of Congress on March 6, 1991, and then deflated millions of his supporters when all he asked for from Congress were his crime and transportation bills. That was it. No arm-twisting, no vibrant domestic empowerment agenda.

Bush merely walked away from his power and spent the rest of his administration expecting to coast to re-election on the strength of the Persian Gulf War. By October 1991, his approval rating dipped below 50%, and it never recovered. The Wofford upset occurred the next month, and a year later, Bush lost to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, receiving just 38% of the popular vote.

The "no drama" Obama administration is following a similar trajectory. Instead of leading on health care reform, President Obama delegated to the Congress. Early in 2009, he said that first we needed to get health care spending under control and then expand coverage to the uninsured. He signed a bill that did precisely the opposite, and the projected cost controls in the bill are by no means guaranteed. Instead of leading on financial services reform, president Obama delegated to Congress. Instead of leading on deficit-reduction policy, President Obama delegated to the Simpson-Bowles Commission and then ignored its recommendations. He then signs a bill that averts a crisis over raising the debt ceiling and delegates to a Congressional Joint Select Committee the details for further deficit-reduction initiatives.

And then, of course, in the area of foreign policy, there's the now famous quote from his own senior aide that President Obama "leads from behind."

In addition to studying what happened to President George H.W. Bush, the Obama re-election team might want to read Robert Caro's monumental study of Lyndon Johnson as Senate Majority Leader. In Master of the Senate, Caro describes Lyndon Johnson as someone who longed for political power but, in the process of steadily acquiring that power, "must conceal those traits that might make others reluctant to give it to him, that might even make them refuse to give it to him." But once Mr. Johnson rose to the pinnacle of Senate power, "[h]e used the powers he found and the powers he created with a raw, elemental brutality."

The message here is quite simple when it comes to power: use it, or lose it. Presidents who squander their power, neglect it or parcel it out too carefully, invariably either give it away through appeasement or watch it dribble away. Presidents with strong convictions, on the other hand, are far more likely to achieve their goals. Barack Obama began his presidency with considerable hope and enthusiasm. He needs to conclude his first term with a more audacious approach to governing. No one ever accused LBJ of leading from behind.

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Charles Kolb is president of the nonpartisan, business-led Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C. He served in the George H.W. Bush White House as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. The above views are solely the author's.