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Peter D. Rosenstein Headshot

Obama Needs to Be in the Ring

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The next few months will be crucial for the nation and for President Obama. The budget discussions could portend what he can accomplish in his second term. Whether or not he will be able to claim any real success may depend on his getting into the ring and fighting for what he wants at close range. Following up his win in the first round may depend on whether he can corral and lift up moderates from both parties to move forward on his agenda. For some reason the president, while a great campaigner, appears to lose some of his oratorical skills when the campaign ends. He will need to revive them if he is to use the 'bully pulpit' to his best advantage.

The president said "there are no winners" in the latest skirmish but most agree the first round went to him because he stood strong with a united Democratic Party in Congress. But clearly the victory was aided by the overreach of Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his acolytes in the House of Representatives and because the Republican Party is in the midst of what may be the worst 'identity crisis' they have ever faced. The President and congressional Democrats will have to retool their tactics as they head into round two.

The president has said his first goal is a long-term balanced budget and the acceptance by Congress that threatening that the United States will default on its obligations is a non-starter. To accomplish the long-term balanced budget changes will need to be made to entitlement programs. We cannot continue to spend money that isn't there. Many agree with the President that the solution is not to cut benefits but rather to limit the rate of growth of future benefits and take in more revenue to pay for that growth. This is a concept that can be sold to moderates in both Parties and the American people. Ideas already on the table include changing the way the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is calculated and indexing Medicare. These are real and potentially supportable changes to entitlement programs. There is also agreement that there has to be real change in our tax code and the need to close loopholes that allow some businesses to avoid paying any taxes. Changes should also include ending the ability of the wealthy to pay nearly no tax on passive income.

To accomplish all this the president will need to do more than just say he is willing to negotiate. He could start a new offensive by inviting Reid, McConnell, Boehner and Pelosi, their spouses and families to the White House for an off-the-record social dinner. Then invite the congressional leadership and any others they suggest, possibly the budget chairs, to a meeting to lay out his vision, and ask them for theirs, on how the moderate members of both parties can come together to accomplish their goals.

Clearly this is easier said than done but the president needs to be in the ring for round two and not spend his time cheering from the sidelines. I think the American people will respect him for renewed involvement and his biggest role will be to sell the ideas both sides can agree on to the American people. He has the 'bully pulpit' from which to do this and doesn't have to run again so can take his own personal politics out of the equation.

He might move his new offensive forward by laying out in clear language what the cost of the recent government shutdown and threat to having the government default was. Identifying the cost in terms of real dollars lost in economic development, jobs, higher interest rates, creating the backlog of benefits to veterans and seniors. This would be even stronger if done with a state-by-state breakdown. The cost which is in the billions is large enough to impact people's thought process and may help create a broader sense about how the government functioning in 'crisis mode' is impacting them negatively on a personal level.

Surely brighter minds than mine are laying out a detailed plan for the next two months as the budget conference committee works to report back to the Congress. But I suggest the plan should include the congressional leadership meeting on a regular basis both at the White House and on the Hill, and if possible jointly reporting to the American people on the progress, or lack of progress, that is occurring every two weeks. Instead of competing press conferences the White House should try to schedule some joint ones, or at least the president should offer that. While we know a goal for Republicans is to take over the Senate in the 2014 elections, and a goal for Democrats is to take back the House of Representatives, the president can rise above that for the next four months as we approach the next deadlines.

There is a real opportunity for moderates to reclaim the initiative in both the Democratic and Republican Party. The time is now and the President has his whole second term agenda riding on the outcome.