THE BLOG
11/20/2013 08:11 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

What Can Obama Do in a Non-Magical Moment?

Try as one might, it's pretty much impossible to miss how badly things have turned for President Barack Obama. Not that it hasn't been building all year.

How does he turn this thing around?

Let's look first at how he got here.

Obama went from an impressive reelection victory a year ago to a rather desultory second inaugural, the wind in its sails fleeting for the creaky and erratic nature of the economic recovery. From there, he was deflated further by revelations of massive secret government surveillance programs. His response, and especially those of his allies, and of course associates in the permanent Beltway establishment, didn't help his credibility, which in turn hurt him with his youthful core supporters.

It marked a period of foreign policy careening for Obama which reached its height, or nadir, so far, in the sudden almost attack on the Assad regime in Syria. After a decade of mostly fruitless war in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and murky black ops and drone ops in various far-flung locales -- we were suddenly, supposedly in a big crisis requiring direct intervention in yet another war in and around the Middle East, this one a civil war involving one of Russia's closest allies. On the other side. Obama wisely took the elegant off-ramp offered him by Vladimir Putin, but didn't look good in the process.

Throw in the federal government shutdown debacle -- for which Republicans deservedly get far more blame but Obama takes a big hit as well, to the seeming surprise of some of his advisors, in addition to having to miss key Asian summitry long in the works as part of the Asia-Pacific Pivot -- and the chutes were greased for a big fall if anything else came down the pike.

Naturally, it did, in the form of the disastrous roll-out of "Obamacare," long relatively unpopular as it is too complex and seemingly compromised for conventional political marketing to work its wiles on the public.

What can Obama, hitting all-time lows in his approval ratings, do to turn things around?

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, about which our president, not long ago known as a famous orator himself, remarkably has nothing to say.

Obama, a very notable writer and story-teller, once seemed poised to be a great American explainer, something badly needed in these times which would be very complex and challenging even absent the poisoned media culture and the frenzied hyper-partisan attacks on him.

But he's backed away from the big set-piece addresses through which he came to fame. That's not a surprise in a sense, because it's hard to keep topping oneself and not everything can be solved with a big speech.

Unfortunately, he's also backed away from the sort of narrative for his presidency which he provided for his life in his acclaimed memoirs, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope.

This is a big mistake.

I follow his presidency and his schedule closely and even I struggle at times to explain what he's doing. Which, by the way, is quite a lot. It's complex and various and consequential.

I think most Americans, who don't follow his schedule and don't spend much time thinking about politics, don't know what he's doing. That has to change.

Second, he has to avoid careening into crises, especially in parts of the world he's trying to disentangle us from. If intervening in the Syrian civil war was a bad idea last year, and it was, it was a bad idea this fall. Iran can't become the next Syria. It's potentially more explosive.

Third, he has to come to grips with the Obamacare situation, the good and the bad.

If it can be fixed, he needs to fix it. This isn't the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

That wasn't Obama's oil at the bottom of the Gulf. This is his health care law.

I'm no expert on health care issues. I find them politically vexing, having seen Bill Clinton's presidency founder in its first team over health care and having watched Arnold Schwarzenegger spend precious political capital in the year after his landslide reelection as California's governor in a fruitless quest to enact a not exactly dissimilar program.

But the spotlight is on Obama and his signature domestic policy initiative now. If this moderate liberal approach to national health care -- in which government and the insurance and medical industries cut a grand deal which hopefully benefits all the players and the people as well -- can work, Obama needs to get in there and make it happen. Or at least make the best of it.

He didn't break the American health care system, whose fundamental flaws have been display for a very long time, so he doesn't own it. But he made this replacement version, so of course his ownership
is obvious.

Sorry I don't have any magical ideas. But it's not a magical moment. And I'm sorry to say that this column is three times as long as the Gettysburg Address.

William Bradley Huffington Post Archive