President Obama's political career and clout have never been in a more perilous state than this week as he faces mounting crises, plummeting poll numbers, and solutions that remain just out of reach.
The list of problems has become almost endless -- the BP spill is becoming Obama's hostage crisis, and will likely hit 100 days without a solution; unemployment remains stuck at nearly 10 percent; either from desperation or isolation, Israel has created a new Mideast challenge; Iran has enough nuclear fuel for two nuclear bombs; north Korea is threatening south Korea; the deficit is exploding and the healthcare bill remains unpopular. And these are just the top level
problems; as a result, administration press briefings sound somewhat like the old theme song from "Car 54, Where Are You?" -- a show from my childhood. And Voters across the country are wondering if they underestimated the value of experience and crisis management as important attributes for their president.
Despite this litany of growing problems, the president spent just 3 hours in New Orleans before heading off to a weekend vacation, attempting to move the traditional Arlington Cemetery Memorial Day ceremonies to Chicago, where they were rained out, filling up the Drudge report. Equally surprising was the White House decision to wait three months to answer questions on the Sestek job offer, and then do so on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.
So what's a president to do facing these problems and midterms around the corner?
First, almost all of these problems are about substance, not style, branding or even communications. They can't be addressed with press conferences and panels. The public is looking for direct and immediate action, thought out and taken by the an administration that acted boldly when it took office to prevent a possible depression.
Here are some quick ways I think he could act --
On the BP crisis, he needs to get away from the posturing politicians and the environmentalists and get together with scientists, generals and big-time business people who have experience solving big logistical problems. Now is the time to call in the big brains, lock them in a room, and deliver every possible resource to shut the oil flow down; think Manhattan Project meets Independence Day, with fewer aliens and more eggheads. The country that put a man on the moon and developed the atomic bomb shouldn't be stumped by an oil leak. Fairly or not, this is Obama's issue now, and daily briefings will just make it look more and more like a hostage crisis -- our nation a hostage of the promises of BP. Smartly solve it in 30 days and he becomes the hero of this story that is holding America both helpless and transfixed. Making the solution the Administration's responsibility is risky, but no more dangerous than ongoing inaction -- just ask Jimmy Carter. Pledge to stop it in 45 days and do it in 30.
On the economy he needs to outline an American economic strategy based on investments in innovation in all of the technical and biological sciences, expanded trade, and a renewed commitment to beefing up America's math and science educations. There is no sense that there is any strategy now beyond bashing the same Wall Street institutions that were propped up. I've written before about the need for the president to be the innovation president, and I think the failure to paint a long-term picture of economic success for America in changing times leaves Americans fundamentally anxious and uncertain about their futures, even if unemployment starts to recede.
On Israel, he needs to recalibrate his approach. As soon as Israel felt isolated and alone, I believe they felt they had no choice but to enforce the blockade or risk being seen as weak. If the president lets Israel get torn apart without a balanced review of the facts, the situation could become even more unstable and dangerous on all sides.
Lastly, on North Korea and Iran, the president is going to have to get as tough with them as he has with Al Qaeda. If they both go nuclear it will be seen as a major failure of American foreign policy and a major weakness in our national security.
In terms of image, this is has to be the summer of all work and no fun. For the next 30 to 45 days, the president has to be seen working virtually around the clock at making dents in these problems. Everyone saw how hard he worked during the campaign - now he has to deploy that same display of raw energy for nonpolitical purposes. The White House has got to be a golf-free zone. Don't even think of hanging out in the vineyard this year until the oil is shut off.
The answers to these problems won't be found in the political play books. The political parties' approval ratings are again nearing historic lows as people question whether our system can put
partisanship aside to make real progress. It is going to take a new array of common sense solutions done well and implemented quickly on all these fronts. His time is now.