12/10/2010 05:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How the President Can Be a Poet and a Fighter

Tom Buffenbarger, the head of the Machinists Union, was featured on Keith Olbermann for a prophetic speech he gave while campaigning for Hillary Clinton. Citing direct experience with then-Senator Obama in labor disputes, Buffenbarger termed the future President "a poet, not a fighter," who would have no stomach for the Republican attack machine. It looks like he was right. But maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Obama wasn't elected on the basis of his platform specifics; he was elected because he gave people hope that America could be its better self again. Of course governing is different than campaigning, you have to accomplish things. No one can deny that the President hasn't gotten things done. But in the most crucial political choices of his Presidency, he does battle with a startling dearth of creativity.

On healthcare, the starting point should have been Medicare For All. With great fanfare -- faked if necessary -- Obama should have "painfully" acceded to "just" the public option in the final stage of negotiations. Instead, he started out the process lamely denoting a "preference" for the public option, thereby signaling from the outset that he would give it away. The result: a sweetheart deal for the insurance companies with no real competition to keep prices down. And now it looks as if the Republicans are going to chip away at the healthcare reform the President did pass, just like they have at abortion rights.

In the tax cut fight, we can see the same egregious lack of elegant tactics. Americans understand the simple if idiotic message that all taxes are bad. But they are clueless as to the truly devastating consequences of the extraordinary increase in income inequality in the past decade. Never did Obama use the bully pulpit to explain it. For example: "Think of 100 people you know. The richest 2 get 50 of every 100 dollars made. The other 98 of you divide up the 49 dollars left over. If you are working class or unemployed you're part of the group that gets one quarter each. That's right, the poorest fifth of Americans are dividing up the equivalent of 1 out of every 100 dollars in wealth." One pie chart, one simple visual. Instead we get Austan Gobbledygooksbee with a whiteboard, explaining tax credits in 500 words or more.

It's a truly sad state of affairs when an obscure Huffington Post blogger -- or hell, probably a bright intern at the Rachel Maddow Show -- can come up with better explanations for what ails the economy than one of the supposedly best and brightest advisers surrounding the president.

If you're not going to try to be a good politician, then don't go into politics. Stagecraft is strategy. Bluffing is part of the process. On defense authorization, the President should be announcing an immediate drawdown of our remaining troops in Iraq, blaming it on Republican refusal to pass an appropriations bill. Pure theater, but very effective. On START? Leak (maybe Julian Assange can help) the American intention to adhere to the treaty regardless of ratification, and to use CIA appropriations for verification. On DADT? Issue an executive stop-loss order as a matter of national security, then get out of the way of the courts overturning it. Unemployment Insurance? Make a personal plea to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to fund an extension through Christmas, scoring a P.R. coup and making the Republicans play Grinch.

Barack Obama got where he was by throwing out the rulebook. And now all he seems to do is play by it. Here's a suggestion, Mr. President. Pretend you won last month and act like a winner -- while you still have both house of Congress. You don't have to be either a poet or a fighter -- be both. Fight poetically.

P.S. To those who argue that any rise in taxes for the lower brackets would be toxic, I was making $20,000 a year in the 90s. I don't remember staggering under my tax burden, nor noticing the slightest improvement under the Bush regime. The idea that preserving present tax cuts is worth returning to the economy of the Gilded Age is nonsense.

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