Once again an initially popular Democratic president tries to pass healthcare reform, raise taxes on the wealthy and expand domestic spending. And once again the voters send a sharp signal that they want him to chart a more centrist course. As Yogi Berra said "It's déjà vu all over again."
President Clinton's wakeup call came with the 1994 mid-term elections -- Obama's came a year earlier with yesterday's special election in Massachusetts.
In response to the similar situation, President Clinton fundamentally changed everything -- his team, his policies, and the overall direction and message of his administration. He moved to the center with a balanced budget, welfare reform, and policies that helped concerned moms raise their kids, leaving behind the divisive bitterness of his first two years. As a part of that new team then, I saw how President Clinton consciously took his presidency back to the centrist message of his presidential campaign and relentlessly pursued swing voters; he didn't go small, he went to the vital center -- 24 million jobs and a balanced budget were big accomplishments.
President Obama now has plenty of time to turn this around before facing the kind of losses President Clinton did. But stopping the Republican machine now will not be done on the basis of words alone -- it will take actions and results to calm this electorate.
It also won't be done on the basis of stepped up populist rhetoric. You can't make deals with Wall Street, Pharma, and other major interest groups and then turn around and make them the whipping boy with any credibility. No doubt there will be a fight over this in the White House with many inside wanting to go back to the equivalent of "people vs. the powerful." Only the voters see the White House as the powerful now and such a lurch would probably have the harshest electoral consequences next November.
But Obama can turn it around and keep the country moving on a steady path of change if he makes the kind of significant changes in his direction that President Clinton did. It's all about getting above the trappings of Washington and being who you said you were.
Here's five things the President could do now.
1) Agree to full transparency in health care hearings and other major reform areas -- Obama's original idea to put them on C-SPAN was the right one. Then go on a major transparency in government binge, seeking out new ways to bring people closer to what the administration is doing through social networking and other online means. Make transparency an action, not a theme.
2) Break health care up into its components and move them step by step. The problem with health care is no one agrees on the solution and this bill is not about the longer lives, greater access and greater efficiency people want. Break it down and start with the easy stuff like electronic medical records first and work up to the harder parts year after year.
3) Look for ways to be genuinely bi-partisan instead of seeking the 60th vote through deals and compromise. Genuine bi-partisanship would have given the Republicans malpractice reform in exchange for a public option -- if you don't invest the opposition in the outcome, then they have no reason to support it. Just looking for one vote is an exercise in deal making and compromise that does not live up to the post-partisan promise. Obama's got to call the Republican leaders and sit down with them, not push them away.
4) Put jobs front and center -- the failure to do this earlier is at the root of the discontent. The administration hit the 10 per cent tripwire of unemployment and the numbers in the center of the country are dismal -- far worse than Massachusetts. This means moving the country forward into the new economic world, not trying to take it backwards. Raising taxes is another flash point now as much of the administration's support came from upper income voters turned off by the right wing, anti-intellectual campaigns of the Republicans. People need to know there is a strategy for competing and winning in the emerging global, high tech economy.
5) Don't be afraid to do what some think of as the small stuff -- helping people in their daily lives. Helping people deal with the new stresses of modern life -- from texting on the road to many working well past 65 -- is not a small thing. People are again afraid of big, grandiose plans that they fear can bankrupt the country and need to see the government also relating to their daily lives in manageable, concrete ways. It's the kind of daily activism Democrats uniquely bring to the White House. This has got to be part of a strategy that returns us to lower unemployment, lower deficits, and restrained spending.
There will be plenty of time to push back on the Republicans when they get too heady. That day will come as it did when Newt Gingrich shut down the government and it backfired. But right now the Republicans are not the issue -- the issue is whether the administration has gone Washington and whether it can reclaim the centrist, people-oriented mantle that brought it to town. And this means taking the administration back to the vital center and fulfilling its core promises -- greater transparency, less political posturing, true bi-partisanship, extreme focus on jobs and the economy, and a government that demonstrates daily how really cares about the people.