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Plan of Attack

It wasn’t terribly hard to predict the public’s turn toward tea-hurling rage. When Barack Obama came to Washington, he could have hardly anticipated the size and scope of the Great Shellacking of 2010, but he certainly could see something like it coming. From the start of his presidency, his advisers privately warned that all economic downturns generate wild flashes of incumbent-melting heat.

This awareness of a looming populist backlash could have suggested a different political course than one the White House chose. When Obama inherited the financial crisis, he could have let the crisis worsen, blamed his predecessor for the mess, and then claimed credit for any modest recovery. But Barack Obama tethered himself to the bailouts, deciding, in other words, to save the country—and this is how the country shows its gratitude.

When asked to assess his first two years in office, Obama told The New York Times’s Peter Baker that he focused too much on the technocratic details of his program and not enough on selling it. This sounds a lot like the rote excuse-making of every bludgeoned president—let history judge me! But there’s more truth to the alibi in this instance. Barack Obama has not done a particularly good job of explaining his mission. Instead of formulating a narrative about the economy—a narrative that might shift some blame to the culprits of the crisis on Wall Street—he continued his inert rhetoric about the broken culture of Washington. He openly mused about the need for Washington to tighten its belt, a line that inadvertently reinforced his opponents’ case against his agenda. It was maddening to hear him make such a limp case for his actions, to do such a poor job of calling out his enemies. Of course, there were perils to issuing angrier, more thundering denunciations of bankers. And even if he had sharpened his argument, there’s very little chance that he could have staved off the structural forces (high unemployment, a swollen Democratic caucus) that were pointing in the direction of electoral doom.

But it is now imperative for the president to internalize his self-critique. The first two years were a rush of legislation—monumental accomplishments, really, that were worth the high political costs he just incurred. That chapter is now, quite obviously, closed. Aside from a few isolated patches of possibility, like education and arms control, legislation will be next to impossible. (Even in those instances, Republicans have no incentive to add to Obama’s tally sheet of achievements.) The next two years will be all about politics. 

The president’s initial responses to defeat—his day-after press conference and “60 Minutes” interview—have been disappointingly passive. We fear that Obama is going to give up before the battle has even begun, that he will allow the Republicans to define the initial contours for debate over what kinds of programs the country needs, and content himself with defending what his administration achieved in the last two years.

But the presidency has a two-sided obligation: to interpret and represent the will of the people; but also to provide leadership—that is, to shape what the public thinks the White House and Congress should do. Obama has to keep both these obligations in mind. He may have to settle for legislation and budgets that he deems less than satisfactory. But at the beginning (which is now), he must argue forcefully for what he believes the country does need. If economic conditions require vital investment or another trillion-dollar stimulus program-and not one watered down with useless tax cuts—he must make that case, and make it clearly and boldly.

One reason that Obama has sometimes failed to argue for bolder policies is that he hasn’t seemed to grasp their necessity. His administration invested too much credence in a recovery that never fully materialized; they believed that the bailouts and stimulus exhausted their policy options. They cannot be blasé going forward. Here, they need to combine good politics and good policy. They should propose a payroll-tax cut—the one breed of tax cut that Republicans aren’t madly enthusiastic about—and force John Boehner and Mitch McConnell on the defensive. Obama should also promote popular infrastructure projects and highlight the GOP’s outrageous opposition to Obama’s nominees to the Federal Reserve. The president can’t allow himself to merely play rope-a-dope. If he fails to mount an aggressive offensive, against both the Republicans and the recession, then the popular rage will not abate. The next time, he will be its prime target.

This article ran in the December 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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