Washington Matters


Some Radical Advice for Obama

Mark Willen

Ideas the president should -- but won't -- adopt in his State of the Union address.



President Obama needs to do something big and bold in his State of the Union Address Wednesday night, but that doesn't seem to be where he's headed. The orchestrated leaks on what he plans to say are disappointing and suggest a waste of great opportunity. A proposed freeze on a small piece of the budget doesn't go far enough. The middle class help Obama outlined Monday is pretty modest. White House aides say he won’t stop pushing health care, though he is open to a scaled down version. And David Plouffe, who ran Obama’s 2008 campaign and is being brought in to oversee the 2010 election effort, argues that rather than change their agenda, Democrats should keep doing what they have been doing – just do it more effectively.

But that amounts to more of the same, a pivot in tone and emphasis without the real change that is crucial to resuscitating Obama’s presidency in the wake of the stunning GOP election win in Massachusetts last week. With modesty – and with the complete understanding that there’s no way he’ll do it -- here’s a better plan for Obama and, more importantly, the nation.

First, postpone the speech one week. Make a big deal of it to build up the anticipation. Say you want time to process the message voters sent last week, and keep the details yourself. No leaks. No extended conversations with advisers. No agonizing. Make it clear this is your unilateral decision for a change. Then prepare the best speech you’ve ever delivered (again). But don’t rely on rhetoric. The substance will be what matters, but you need to be equally effective in using words that show things are going to change.

Candidly admit you got the message. Acknowledge you lost sight of voters’ deep skepticism of government and the need to rebuild confidence before going for major change. Whether you believe it or not, say you know you tried to do too much too fast.

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Fire somebody the day before the speech. You need to do that for symbolic purposes. Rahm Emanuel is a good prospect because he epitomizes the “compromise to get it done” philosophy. It doesn’t matter whether he’s really to blame. He -- or someone of similar stature -- needs to take one for your team.

Shelve health care – for now. The single most important thing you can do is acknowledge that the legislative process went awry. Reaffirm your commitment to the goals, but promise to start over and pledge that this time, you’ll take charge. Say you want a simpler, better bill by summer. Let your supporters know you’re not giving up, but don’t shed a tear over the bill that’s now dead. There’s not a single American who understands it, let alone who supports it with any real enthusiasm. Challenge Republicans to work with you and offer to make real tort reform (not a window dressing pilot program) part of it. But make it clear that the GOP must put forth serious ideas that will expand coverage and rein in long term costs. And explain why that’s crucial to the economy and the deficit. Lay out the Medicare numbers and ask how those who rejected the Medicare cuts in the health bill hope to keep the system from going broke. More to the point, ask Republicans to form a committee to come up with a plan to ensure Medicare’s solvency. Don’t let them have it both ways -- suddenly becoming great defenders of Medicare savings while decrying the deficit. If you’re really daring, you can admit that some rationing is inevitable, while pointing out it’s already occurring every day.

Promise you’ll do everything you can to help firms hire more workers. Defend the stimulus with everything you can muster, but say you’re sick and tired of critics calling it a $787 billion spending program when 45% of it went to tax cuts. Point out that there are people who say the government should spend more to create jobs and others who say it should cut taxes to create jobs BUT THAT BOTH will add to the deficit. Insist it’s nonsense to demand on the one hand that the government boost the economy and on the other that it cut the deficit. Make it clear that you can’t cut taxes or stimulate the economy and still rein in the balance, not while fighting two wars. Americans can take the truth.

Agree that your next jobs package will include plenty of targeted business tax breaks to help create jobs – maybe something like the plan Harold Ford proposed, a cut in the corporate tax rate and special tax breaks for firms under five years of age. But make it clear you won’t support tax cuts that don’t come with evidence of a payback. No more vague talk of an expected trickle down effect.

Punish Joe Lieberman and maybe Ben Nelson, too. Your heart was in the right place when you let Lieberman keep his committee chairmanship, but he took that as a sign of weakness on your part. It takes two sides -- and two parties -- to compromise. The fact that no one in Congress fears you is a huge problem, and you need to fix it. Better (and harder) late than never.

As I say, I know Obama isn’t about to do any of this. But I guarantee one thing: If he gives the speech being previewed by his aides, Americans will react with a big yawn now and a stampede in November.



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