Although losing the 60th vote in the Senate is a critical loss to President Obama, the even greater danger to the President caused by yesterday's Senate election is the reduced confidence that Democratic Senators and Congressmen will have in the political leadership of the president. Until he rebuilds that confidence he will not be able to lead his party effectively. The rank and file may not agree with their leader, they may not even like him, but they will follow as long as they have confidence in his political shrewdness (and thus fear in opposing him.)
President Bush lost the confidence of his fellow party men and women after Katrina. It infected and undermined their confidence in his judgment on unrelated issues, such as the Iraq War. If I were the president's advisor this morning, I would tell him that regaining that confidence in his political shrewdness is his highest priority. His other priority must be to let the general public see that he has listened to them and is taking steps to respond.
There is a fairly obvious (at least to me) four-step agenda for the president to accomplish those objectives. First on health care, he should call in the Republican leaders and quickly negotiate a modest health insurance reform that will get 90 votes in the senate and 350 or more votes in the House. It's not much, but it puts the issue behind him with a modest accomplishment with a reinforcement of his shredded campaign pledge to be bipartisan. And yes, that negotiation can be put on C-SPAN.
Second, he should pivot to the issue of the banks and play a hard populist card against them (I personally disagree with this, but it will be good politics for him.). Beat up on the banks for a couple of months as loudly as he wants to. The left will love it, but so will many in the center and even on the right. This will get him in better alignment with the national mood than his health care position did. It will also have the advantage of not inducing Republican opposition, as most Republicans will not want to get on the wrong side of the public furor over bailouts and bonuses.
Then, third, he should spend the rest of the legislating season conspicuously leading congressional budget trimming and cutting -- but avoid cutting entitlements, as that would be unpopular. And fourth, he should propose some pointless bills to create jobs. He needs to be seen passionately engaged trying to create jobs, even though there is not much he can actually do about it at this point -- other than assure both small and big business that he will not increase taxes or regulations (but he probably can't make and keep that promise.)
These steps have a reasonable chance of bringing his job approval up to a steady mid 50s, drain some of the hostile energy currently pulsating across the country and lead to a relatively modest Democratic party congressional loss this November (say 20 seats or less in the House and 4-5 seats or less in the Senate.) If he ends the year in those conditions, his rank and file Democrats will have regained some confidence in his political sagacity -- and he can spend 2011-2012 trying to move the country to the left again.
But if he fails to take effective action, he will experience what most presidents do in the second year -- an average 5-point drop in the Gallup Poll. Then his re-election would be largely out of his control, but rather at the mercy of a big drop in unemployment -- a pretty iffy matter, according to most experts.
I offer the foregoing advice in the hope that he will not take it. But the advice is sincere, nonetheless.