With his powerful speech in Tucson, his legislative wins in the lame-duck session, and a modest increase in his poll numbers, President Obama certainly is politically stronger than he was in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 election. The conventional wisdom in D.C. already has begun to shift, and with Republicans toning down their rhetoric because of the Gabrielle Giffords tragedy, the next couple of months may be a period of relative calm for the president. But there is danger ahead if he gets too comfortable.
The biggest danger is if the White House allows itself to be sucked into that ever-tempting D.C. conventional wisdom. Having the David Bs (Broder and Brooks) of the world love you feels really good when you read the Washington Post and the New York Times every morning, but if unemployment doesn't start going down, housing prices don't start going back up, and seniors have no more confidence in Obama's willingness to fight for them than they have so far, the political climate in November 2012 isn't going to be any better for the president and his fellow Democrats than it was in November 2010. Cutting a deal to resolve the debt ceiling issue that hurts the middle class will make Broder and Brooks applaud, but it will do nothing to help Obama's reelection results. On the other hand, this moment of relative political calm could give Obama some leverage going into the next few months. The kind of brinksmanship the Republicans want to pursue on the debt ceiling will not look good for them if Obama continues to look more statesmanlike. The real question now is how Obama decides to position himself in terms of the big moments ahead. The White House needs to stay focused like a laser beam on the working- and middle-class Americans who have taken the biggest hits economically over the last five years. These folks, who rejected Bush's policies in the 2006 elections, took a gamble on this new guy, Barack Obama, and his promise to change America in 2008, and then either didn't vote or went back to the Republicans in 2010.
The first big question is how the president will frame the choices ahead in his State of the Union. He has a chance to change the political dialogue from an obsession with retrenchment and deficit cuts to a focus on how life will get better for the middle class. There is nothing wrong with showing how he is going to take on the special interests by cutting the parts of the budget they love the best -- padded no-bid government contracts, corporate subsidies, and offshore tax loopholes -- but Obama has to reorient the Washington discussion back to a focus on policies that will improve life for working families and retirees. The questions Washington should be debating are: how do we create more jobs; how do we get wages to start rising again; how do we lessen escalating inflation for daily necessities like gasoline, utilities, groceries, college tuition, and health care; how do we make sure seniors and those close to retirement have enough retirement income to live above the level of grinding poverty; and how do we stabilize the housing market, slow down the tidal wave of foreclosures, and get home prices to actually start rising again. Those are the issues Washington should be obsessing about instead of theoretical discussions about the size of government. Obama's State of the Union should be first and foremost about those issues.
The second big question going forward is how the president will choose to position himself in negotiations with House Republicans on the debt ceiling. Is he going to, in his own words, allow more hostage takings? Is he going to again let our country's middle class and our fragile economy be held prisoner by allowing the Republicans to set the terms of the debate? The president needs to be far more aggressive this time around than he chose to be in the tax-cut negotiations. He needs to be clear that he is not going to haggle over the government's good standing on the debt issue, that he expects and demands that Republicans do the right thing in regards to the debt ceiling, and that he won't allow Social Security or other programs seniors and the middle class depend on to be compromised.
The Republicans actually understand how catastrophic reneging on our country's debt obligations would be. Eric Cantor already has acknowledged that the debt ceiling must be raised. Republicans can only force the president to give ground on Social Security, Medicare, and other key issues if he allows it by showing weakness as a negotiator. If Obama does give in on the huge issues affecting middle-class workers and retirees, he will have no one to blame but himself if those workers and retirees desert him again at election time. But if -- like Bill Clinton in 1995 -- he shows himself to be a strong negotiator on the issues key swing voters care about, he will put the Republicans in an electoral hole they will have a very tough time climbing out of.
The SOTU and the debt ceiling fight offer the president big opportunities to reframe the national political debate into one about which party will fight hardest for the American middle class. That should be the complete focus for Obama in the coming months. If it is, he can enter the spring and summer in commanding position for his reelection campaign.