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Jerry Lanson Headshot

Memo to the President: Find Your Voice Now or Face Losing

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As despicable as they've been, the GOP's politics of paralysis could yet get Mitt Romney elected.

The party's strategy has never been a secret. A few weeks before the 2010 midterm election, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the National Journal, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

The GOP has sought to accomplish this by demonizing the president, stoking a sense that he's "different" (a not-so-subtle attempt to make race an issue), blocking key appointments, sticking to positions so far right that everyone gets pulled that way and killing any attempt at bipartisanship.

In April, political scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein put it this way in the Washington Post :

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. ... The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Just Monday, the Republican Party's own heir apparent, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, acknowledged that his party is taking on "an orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement."

Yet that "orthodoxy" -- or extremism -- could deliver Republicans the presidency unless Obama finds a way to awaken people to how Republicans continue to play them.

The GOP methods are clever. By repeating lies (take Donald Trump's "birther" hokum), the party has eroded the public's sense of the truth. By paralyzing Congress, it has made it impossible for the president to respond to our slowing economy or the eurozone storm clouds (Paul Krugman noted last week that during Ronald Reagan's first term, per capita government spending increased more than twice as fast as it has during Barack Obama's.) And by sticking doggedly to extreme positions, the GOP has pulled the party and country so far right that few took note, for example, when Republican Rep. Allen West told a Florida audience that "he's heard" up to 80 Democratic Congressmen are Communist Party members. Meanwhile, only one in three Americans polled recently thought the Arizona law that allows police to interrogate people pretty much at whim about their immigration status "goes too far."

For progressives, these are scary times. And if Barack Obama is going to combat them, he'll have to be tougher, more outspoken and more engaged, as progressives have long urged. Trashing Bain Capital and Romney's record as governor are by themselves a losing strategy. There's still time for other approaches. Obama might start by:

Touting his record

For a guy known as a great communicator, Barack Obama has done a miserable job of making his accomplishments clear. There are many. He saved the American automobile industry. His stimulus stopped the free-fall of jobs (though it was too small to reverse it). He forced insurance companies to give coverage to those with pre-existing conditions and extended health insurance for young adults. He rid the country of "don't ask, don't tell." He ended the Iraq War. He killed Osama bin Laden. Plenty of presidents would like to have that much to run on.


Feeling America's pain: every day

That means no more statements such as "the private sector is doing fine." Pl-eeeze. It means a lot more, too. Barack Obama needs to talk to the American people. Every day. He should have started the first day he came to office. He should have explained the mess the country faced, what caused it and what he planned to do to help. He should have done the same with the debt crisis. It may not be too late to start. The president is personally popular. But he can't expect loyalty in tough times unless he inspires with leadership.


Explaining our global interdependence

When any newscaster mentions the words "eurozone" most Americans either flip the dial or start snoring. And yet there's no denying the accelerating meltdown in Europe is closely tied to our own fortunes. The president could -- and should -- explain why. He also could point out that the failed policies of European leaders -- their efforts to cut and cut some more -- are precisely those the Republicans are advocating.

Pushing the news media as hard as the Right does

Newt Gingrich made press-bashing a season series. Republicans have convinced many that the news media are liberal (they are not) and that Fox News is "fair and balanced" (as if propaganda masked as news can be either). I'd like to see the president and his staff push the supposedly objective press out of its zombie zone in the same way Jon Stewart did in a terrific segment lambasting CNN for constantly leaving the food fight "right there" instead of resolving what's true and what's false. Objectivity does not mean giving equal weight to a lie and a factually based statement. It's a point the president could make regularly.


Shining a constant light on the corruption of big money

Money is buying American politicians like never before and most is flowing into Republican super PACs. The Supreme Court enabled this with its Citizens United decision. The president can hammer this theme even though he, too, is taking super PAC funds. He also can demonstrate that American democracy is being undermined by laws attempting to deny Americans the right to vote.

Whatever approach he chooses, the president can't sit back until Labor Day before energizing his campaign. If he does, he'll lose.

In a really close race, this election sadly could be decided by bigots. An analysis in this Sunday's New York Times Review by Harvard doctoral student Seth Stephens-Davidowitz strongly suggests that the president's 2008 vote would have been several percentage points higher had he not been black. Race aside, incumbents who sit below the 50 percent mark in the weeks just prior to an election often lose.

So Barack Obama can't afford to play it safe and hope he'll win. Perhaps he should heed the advice of Tim Wise, a prominent anti-racist writer, who last month spoke at the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in Higher Education.

"We have only two choices," he told the gathering. "We can go back the way some people want us to or ... we can go forward. We cannot stand still."