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Obama's September Choice: Charge or Trim?

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As Congress returns from its summer recess, President Obama, slipping in the polls, assailed on all sides by the carpers, faces a strategic choice: Lead the charge, rally Democrats, and push forward on his agenda, starting with health care reform or trim his sails and adopt a more cautious course.

David Brooks, the keeper of conservative convention, sounds the call for retreat in his New York Times column. Brooks, who peddles conservative pieties with a soft voice and smile, has packaged himself as the "reasonable" Republican. This has made him the darling of mainstream opinion, a pundit far more prominent than profound. But he is consistent: when he begins ladling out advice to Democrats, he is unerringly in error.

Brooks argues that Obama has gone astray because he joined himself "at the hip to the liberal leadership in Congress." His slide in opinion polls comes from promoting policies that "increase spending and centralize power in Washington." Obama must learn that "fiscal responsibility" is the "animating issue of American moderates." So Obama would be well advised to return to the central values of America: "fiscal restraint, individual choice and decentralized authority."

Well. Few would object to those desirables, but before Brooks' advice congeals into conventional wisdom, it is worth noting that it is truly bunk.

Yes, Obama has suffered a slide in the polls since the afterglow of his election. Much of this was to be expected once he started trying to clean up the devastation left by George Bush. Become president as Americans lose some $13 trillion in assets and see how long your popularity holds up, no matter what course you follow.

But in these ruins, it is hardly "fiscal responsibility" that is the "animating issue" of American politics. Conservatives love to huckster this theme when they are out of power. Since Reagan -- who, as Dick Cheney noted, taught us "deficits don't matter" -- the right has followed a consistent path. In power, they cut top end taxes, explode the military budget, and run up record deficits. Thrown out of power, they suddenly become chastened disciples of fiscal discipline, preaching against licentious spending, renting garments in the name of balanced budgets, looking towards the day when they are returned to power to once more cut top end taxes, explode the military budget and run up record deficits. So Reagan doubles the national debt and runs up unprecedented deficits which conservatives in both parties use to shackle the Clinton presidency. So Bush squanders the Clinton surplus, and bequeaths a trillion dollar deficit to Obama.

But the cynicism of this strategy wouldn't matter much if in fact it were true that voters were fixated on "fiscal responsibility." No question Americans are worried about deficits. How could they not be given the media clamor about $9 trillion dollar deficits, a figure tossed about unhinged from the reality that it represents a 10 year projection during which time the economy will generate over $180 trillion in GDP.

But is it red ink that has soured Americans on Obama's course? Or is that simply a metaphor for growing concerns about his economic policies?

In fact, I'd argue that the two biggest drags on the president's popularity go without mention in the Brooks column. It isn't "fiscal responsibility" in the abstract; it is hundreds of billions going to bail out bankers and speculators who are now back to paying themselves million dollar bonuses -- bonuses about to be approved by the president's compensation czar -- while factories close, homes are lost, hours and wages decline.

Americans conflate the recovery plan, which is actually putting people to work, with the Wall Street bailout which rewards the very people who drove us off the cliff. They aren't angry at "big government" in the abstract (They love Social Security and Medicare, two of the largest big government social programs). They are angry at a big government that spends their money to save Wall Street and not Main Street. Obama pays and will pay a continuing price for the decision to subsidize the banks and not reorganize them, to bail them out without firing those who led us into the mess.

The other policy that will increasingly corrode trust in Obama is also absent from Brooks' column. It comes from dismissing liberals, not following them. That is the misadventure in Afghanistan. Liberal voices have been muted here, hoping against hope that Obama would find a way to extricate us before it's too late. But a significant part of Obama's slide in the polls comes from liberals and Democratic leaning independents. Democratic leaders have always "misunderestimated" the depths of American discomfort with these adventures. Sure, no one wants al Qaeda given a free pass. But this country is in trouble here at home. The vast majority of Obama supporters wants out of Iraq and has no appetite for sending ever more troops to Afghanistan in the futile pursuit of "nation-building." Hell, even conservative George Will has no stomach for that.

Brooks suggests that it would be "suicidal" for the president and Democrats to press forward with health care reform without Republican support. In fact, the reverse is surely true. Democrats learned in 1994 that Americans will hold them responsible if they fail to produce. Republicans get this -- that's why they have committed themselves to trying to "break" the Obama presidency by uniting to obstruct any reform.

The president can't escape this test. Can he rally the disputatious Democratic Senators to unite against the Republican filibuster, pass cloture with 60 votes, and then pass a health care plan through both Houses of Congress with majority support? If Democrats unite against the filibuster, several so-called moderate Republicans (truly exotic birds) are likely to join in the supporting the final bill -- but not until then. And Democrats -- if they pass a decent bill -- will benefit greatly in 2010. Alternatively they can follow Brooks' advice and run in the bi-election with double digit unemployment and failed health care reform. Good luck.

In the end, Brooks lives in a conservative fantasy world. Americans are suspicious of centralized government, he says, because "This is a country that has just lived through an economic trauma caused by excessive spending and debt." More accurately, this is a country that has lived through an economic trauma caused by catastrophic financial deregulation and speculation, fueled by top end tax cuts, a costly war of choice, a middle class holding on only by taking on greater debt, and an unsustainable global economic strategy based on borrowing $2 billion a day from abroad. Conservative policies and ideas drove us off the cliff.

Getting the diagnosis wrong leads Brooks to the wrong prescription: "fiscal responsibility, individual choice and decentralized authority." Bravo. But in the current situation, this translates into cutting spending, which would increase unemployment and deepen the recession, and foregoing re-regulation, which would allow Wall Street to go where they are already headed -- back to gambling, now with taxpayers' guaranteeing their losses.

Obama's problem isn't that he's tied himself to "liberal leadership" in the Congress (surely an oxymoron in the Senate). It is that he appears to be straying from the promise that swept him into office. His great genius was to run a campaign that understood how much Americans wanted change. He presented himself as an outsider who would challenge the old ways of doing business, sweep the money changers from the temple, and take on the entrenched corporate lobbies. He pledged to get us out of Iraq, and to bring the money home to invest in America.

Is he suffering because he has followed that course? Or are doubts growing because he appears to be wavering, cowed by Wall Street, waltzing with the drug companies, getting rolled by oil and coal interests, squandering more resources and lives abroad, while talking about cutting Medicare and Social Security?

Americans want this president to succeed. The majority that elected him want Washington changed. They want him to take on the entrenched special interests. They will punish those -- particularly Democrats -- who stand in his way. But they increasingly wonder if he is the champion they elected. Obama's leadership strategy -- which is to emphasize compromise, elevate bipartisanship, put everyone at the table, blur lines of disagreement -- does little to dispel these doubts.

So as the president meets with his advisors this fall, he should remind them of what got him to the White House. He would benefit greatly from hewing not to Brooks' wrong headed advice to trim his sails, but by boldly unfurling the principles and priorities that inspired the movement that swept him into office and stands ready to fight with him today.