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He's Only Stuck If He Lets Himself Be

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There was a headline in the Washington Post on Sunday that completely summarizes the Republicans' fondest dreams as well as the expectations of the D.C. establishment's conventional wisdom: "Debt Crisis Expected to Define Obama's Second Term."

In the eyes of Republicans, the Washington Post, and all the other "Serious" people inside the Beltway, deficits, debt, and the control thereof are all that matters. Deficits are the biggest problem. Deficits are the only thing important. Deficits are the priority above all other things. Deficits are a crisis, an emergency, a disaster, a catastrophe. Deficits are at the center of every debate. We are broke, we are in desperate trouble. And on and on and on it goes. The fact that we are still close to 8 percent unemployment doesn't matter -- even though the main reason we got to a surplus in the Clinton years was because of full employment. The fact that schools, roads, bridges, highways, airports, our electrical grid need to be rebuilt doesn't either. Our economy is still top-heavy with a few Too Big To Fail banks that could easily crash our economy again; there are still over 10,000,000 underwater homeowners keeping our housing sector and economy from coming back; the climate change disaster is bearing down on us like a giant tsunami wave; student loans, skyrocketing tuition rates, and youth unemployment are creating a toxic stew of debt for our young people. The backbone of our nation's economy, our middle class, continues to be hollowed out by flat wages, rising prices for necessities, and not enough jobs. But none of this matters, according to the Republicans and their pundit friends, because the deficit is everything-everything-everything.

It's a reminder of something I learned when I first came to D.C. a couple of decades ago: the conventional wisdom in D.C. is almost always wrong. I have to smile when I think back on all the times that practically the entire punditry have been dead wrong over the years, it really is comical. George H.W. Bush was a shoo-in for a second term after the first Gulf War; deficits were intractable and would dominate our policy landscape all through the '90s; Bill Clinton was done as president after the Republicans took over Congress in 1994; the Democrats would lose 30 seats in the '98 Lewinsky scandal-dominated cycle; Republicans would keep the House throughout the decade of the 2000s; Obama would never win reelection after the 2010 cycle. Every one of these big assumptions couldn't have been proven to be more wrong. Indeed, it is hard to think of one big time over the last 20 years when the conventional wisdom turned out to be right. And it could easily be proven wrong over the next four years. This isn't to say deficits won't continue to be an issue -- the House Republicans will make sure of that. And Democrats and progressives should certainly engage in the debate over how bring deficits down over the long run -- there are certainly plenty of progressive ways to do that, including: cutting wasteful subsidies for agribusiness and oil companies, cutting wasteful military spending, imposing federal contracting reform, a tax on financial trading, a carbon tax, and many other ideas.

At the end of the day, though, it is Barack Obama who will determine whether, as the headline suggested, debt and deficits will define Obama's second term. That will only be true if he lets it be.

Here's the first important point: budget issues are not the only thing that matters when you control the executive branch. When you think about the things Presidents like Lincoln, TR, Truman, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and GW Bush did in spite of major opposition in Congress for significant parts of their term, you remember that between regulatory authority, the Department of Justice, executive orders, and the bully pulpit, Presidents have a great deal of running room to drive their own agenda and do big things. I have written about this before. Obama can use all the powers of the presidency and executive branch to get things done on behalf of the middle class, and to get the economy back on track, and if he was aggressive in using this power, no one at the end of his second term would be writing that debt or deficits defined his second term.

Another very big factor is whether Obama uses the political powers of his office to shape the debate in the country and help the Democrats win in 2014. How Clinton's last two years, and therefore his second term, were viewed in retrospect had a lot to do with the fact that he emerged from the 1998 off-year elections triumphant rather than on the defensive and running scared. People close to the president tell me he is very excited and relieved to never have to run for office again, which is very understandable. But if he thinks he can now leave politics and partisanship aside, the Democrats will get swamped in 2014, and that will make his last two years really ugly. People have an aversion the word "political," but I will go counter-intuitive here and say that Obama needs to embrace being political, to make the 2014 elections his last chance to make a statement on behalf of his agenda and on behalf of America's middle class. If like Clinton, he comes out of that election triumphant, he will be able to keep the Republicans backpedaling his entire second term.

Obama needs to resist all the establishment cliches about being above politics, and he needs to resist his own feelings of relief that he never has to run again. In order to have a successful second term, a term where he aggressively sets the agenda and solves problems instead of just presiding over a tiny range of options hemmed in by an unhealthy obsession with the federal deficit, Obama needs to embrace politics and act as if he does have to stand for election again, because in a sense, in 2014 he does. He needs to think about what voters will care about; he needs to remember the political coalition that won him the election, the Democratic base and working class swing voters. If he fights for that coalition, and focuses on what they would want, he will be a lot stronger president and be able to define his second term the way he wants to define.

That "debt crisis expected to define Obama's second term" headline will only come true if Obama passively lets it happen. He has the power of the executive branch, and the power of his majority coalition, to make things different if he is willing to use the power.