11/12/2010 02:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Meeting America's Challenges

In The Agenda, Bob Woodward described a White House staff meeting held on the 90th day of Bill Clinton's presidency. Things were not going well. Zoe Baird, the Christophe haircut and Don't Ask, Don't Tell had made for a rocky start. Even worse, Clinton's $140 billion five year deficit reduction plan and his $16 billion economic stimulus package faced a Republican filibuster in the United States Senate.

The White House senior staff concluded that a lack of clarity was the core problem. Clinton disagreed, vehemently. "I know what's wrong!" Clinton screamed. "Give me a strategy." His staff returned that evening with memo giving George Stephanopoulos a new job title and dropping the economic stimulus. Tactics trumped strategy and, inevitably, disaster followed.

The 1994 midterm elections saw Democrats lose 54 seats in the House of Representatives and eight United States Senators, nine if Richard Shelby's switch to the Republican Party is counted.

Sixteen years later, Democratic loses are slightly fewer but no less devastating. And yet, the analyses of what went wrong in the 2010 midterms have a familiar ring -- the Democratic message lacked clarity and coherence. Valid or not, the analysis misses the larger point. Without a complete strategy, tactics (and message) are readily defeated.

President Clinton would wait a couple more years before crafting his own strategy. In his 1996 State of the Union Speech, he used the phrase "meeting America's challenges" fifty-one times. And every cabinet officer, including the Secretary of Defense, held a press conference during the next two weeks describing what they had done, and were doing, to "meet America's challenges." Not surprisingly, the Democratic National Committee picked up on the strategy and ran television ads throughout the 1996 primaries touting how President Clinton was "meeting America's Challenges." All the levers of power and, yes, persuasion were used to point the ship of state in a direction the President of the United States intended to go.

And while the message was clearer and cleaner, Bill Clinton's strategy of "meeting America's challenges" was less about words than it was about action. His speech recounted what Congress and the White House had done, what still needed to be done, and how "one nation working together" could do even more. I urge you to read President Clinton's entire speech.

Today, as the White House staff wrestles with the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections, they must understand their limitations. They are tacticians, talented and experienced as they are, but tacticians nonetheless. They are not the strategist-in-chief. That role is reserved, exclusively, for President Barack Obama.

The way forward, as his Democratic predecessor proved, was to face the crises head-on with confidence, a compelling vision and a complete strategy. That strategy, his strategy, must reach beyond the narrow corridor of Pennsylvania Avenue. President Obama's strategy must embrace a nation that hungers for leadership, reflect a nation that wants action this day, and rallies a nation that has "always risen to every challenge."

In short, if President Obama leads with an intensity, imagination and integrity imbued with his own ideals, America will follow. And so will a recalcitrant and semi-Republican Congress.

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