02/22/2013 05:25 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

How Obama Can Win -- or Lose

There's been a refreshing change in the content of public conversation over the past year or so. For literally decades, the unchallenged truth was that taxes were too high, debt was too high and cutting of government spending and taxes were required for the nation to prosper. Austerity, austerity, austerity.

While this is the historic mantra of the Right, from the days of McKinley and Hoover on to Reagan, Democrats were unable to find a counter, and eventually joined in. It was, after all, Bill Clinton who announced "The era of big government is over" and it was Obama who proudly announced "Last year, I worked with Democrats and Republicans to cut a trillion dollars worth of spending."

But the conversation changed, thank goodness. First, Occupy Wall Street crystallized a national discontent with the increasing wealth gap between the 1% and the 99%, and second, when Obama found ways to expound on that theme, with the unintentional help of Mitt Romney. There's now a real debate about economic growth and economic fairness. The austerity crowd still gets heard, but the intellectual and moral counter arguments are alive and well.

That's small comfort to progressives unless and until laws get passed that reflect the improved debate. Governing reduces philosophical debates to yes-or-no votes on particular pieces of legislation. It won't be enough to win the argument and lose the votes. The fate of his second term and the progressive agenda hinges on moving things through a recalcitrant Congress.

Obama seems to have learned the lesson of his first term: Don't negotiate with yourself, don't make concessions early, outside pressure changes insider positions. He faces a set of votes about sequestration, annual budgets, and long-term debt reduction. His success will need intelligence and political positioning. But that won't be enough. He needs a way to navigate through the particular dynamics of legislative bodies. It's that skill that will determine the outcome. And for all his intelligence, and ability to argue and persuade the public, it isn't clear that he has the skills or even recognizes their importance.

I served in the New York Legislature for a long time. I won a bunch of fights, and lost a bunch. But getting to a majority requires a few skills that seem obvious but often go by the board. For example:

  • Know How To Count- The only people who are with you are those who give clear and unequivocal commitments. Anything short of that, "I share your concerns.", "That makes sense.", That's where I want to be.", almost invariably mean a no vote. John Boehner failed this test on Plan B, and it cost the Republicans a strategic defeat.
  • Know Who To Ignore- There are whole bunches of legislators who will never, ever support you. Ideology, politics, personal enmity, whatever. Know who they are and ignore them. The Tea Party faction has earned the silent treatment.
  • Know Who To Pay Attention To- In the movie "Lincoln" he developed a list and spent real time figuring out how to move them. Here's where Obama doesn't seem to engage. He needn't be Lyndon Johnson, but he needs to engage with individuals, big and small.
  • Non-Tea Party Republicans turn out to control the necessary votes to get to 51%. Focus.
  • Know Who To Threaten, Who To Charm, And Who To Buy- Lincoln again. American democracy is transactional, and it works. Again it requires direct engagement, and a taste for personal involvement. Obama has the personal qualities to do all of the above. But will he?
  • Timing, Timing, Timing- There's a mystical dynamic to legislative politics, differing from issue to issue. Here Obama seems to have concluded that late is better than early. He's probably right.

For those of us who follow the broad strokes of philosophy and politics, the foregoing seems pedestrian, almost a repudiation of the grand battles of history and ideology. They're no such repudiation. They're the instruments of representative democracy and are the heart of a process that has so often worked to resolve difficult conflicts. If Obama embraces them, he'll win. If not,.......