Perhaps the most amazing thing to me about President Obama’s popularity tailspin is how easy it would be for him to get out of it. People still like the guy (although that may be changing, as well) — they just don’t like his policies, and they don’t think he’s listening to them. Any one of the following five things would improve his political standing, at virtually no political cost to him:
- Say he won’t be closing Guantanamo – yet. This is obvious to all involved, but his team’s continued insistence that he’s working toward his one-year deadline runs against the grain of most Americans (55% oppose the move, 33% support it) and makes him look silly. Conservatives would hail this as a win, and liberals would frown that their man has gone soft. But this isn’t a change of mind, it’s just a change of timeline — and a recognition of reality. Behind the scenes, his team could still try to find a way out of the mess, without giving opponents the talking point. Far better to take this “loss” now than in January when his promise comes due – and he can still close the prison at any time. Isn’t this just the pragmatic, non-ideological perspective for which Americans elected him last November?
- End the intelligence inquisition. Most observers believe that the Administration’s continued assault on the CIA was much more about Eric Holder than Barack Obama. It was a wildcat move by an Attorney General whose allegiances lie with the left wing. The President has laid the groundwork for this — he’s already said we need to look forward, not backward, and he has never explicitly endorsed Holder’s escapade. This would come a little late, but it would show the public that he’s not beholden to his base and can openly disagree with his team — something Bush never could seem to do. Would the Left be furious? Maybe, but this fight is so 2008, and it’s not the kind of thing you want hanging over Democrats’ heads going into a tough 2010 midterm election. Make that double for any actual prosecutions of CIA employees, so there’s really no upside to pursuing this. There’s plenty of upside for ending it.
- Go to Berlin on November 12th. Make a speech (he’s good at that). Say only good things about America. Say nice things about Ronald Reagan and Jack Kennedy. Walk through the Brandenburg Gate. Speak out against tyranny and oppression. Speak harshly about Communism. Take credit (on behalf of his country) for helping to end it. Recommit to the defense of Europe, and call on them to help us defend the free peoples of the rest of the world. Americans love this stuff. No one will criticize it (except the Russians, and they don’t vote). Everyone will say it’s a change of tone. It will distract people from the drudgery of health care, et. al. Not doing this will get noticed, to his detriment, I believe.
- Set a deadline and keep it against Iran. Ahmadenijad is America’s boogeyman of the moment – and he’s earned it. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about the guy, and there is no constituency in this country for coddling him and his regime. Obama has spoken much about the need to use diplomacy to solve the situation in Iran. To date, his understanding of diplomacy has meant ignoring a rigged election and brutal oppression; setting deadlines and watching them float by without consequence; and revealing knowledge of duplicity but showing no interest in punishing it. He’s earned his nice guy bona fides. No one doubts he wants to solve this thing without firing a shot. But that sets him up perfectly to deliver a stemwinder against the most hated man on the globe. Obama’s stern speech can set one last deadline, leaving the door open for progress on our timetable — but if Iran blows it, he’s got Congress to back him up. Obama looks strong; his buddies in Europe can’t help but fall in line. In short, the trap is set — the only question is, is Obama building a trap or a dollhouse?
- Publicly retrench on some element of health care reform. It’s no secret that the American public is both fatalistic and incredibly concerned about the President’s health care agenda. He’s overpromised, overspent, and underdelivered. But the Democrats are convinced that if they do not pass their behemoth of a public health care regime now, they will never get another chance. I disagree – a well-designed, publicly-supported program that will pass is likely to entrench the Democrats as the “health care party” for a long time to come, giving them other opportunities to improve upon their program (assuming it works, of course). Within the health care polling, there is an emerging path for success that scares me to death, but would save the day for the Administration. Let’s build it from the ground up, using the great polling data from Rasmussen Reports. The public wants more private sector competition, and they are OK with a public option that improves such competition. They aren’t OK with a Trojan Horse public option aimed at overtaking the private sector. People also hate the idea of forcing people to buy health care, but everyone agrees that without getting the “young invincibles” into the health insurance market, costs will go up. Americans are more concerned with cost control than they are universal coverage. Taking these issues together, Obama presents a new way forward. He publicly takes a government-run public option off the table. He then says he will only support a bill with a non-profit or member-run plan that subsidizes care on a sliding scale basis — essentially an expansion of Medicaid up to an income limit where someone could easily participate in the insurance market. He then says that participation in the non-profit plan or some other employer-provided plan will be mandatory for all individuals who receive federal aid (in the form of student loans, grants, housing assistance, etc.). Obama also states that anyone who is uninsured who receives care at a public hospital will automatically be enrolled in the plan, and the government will pay for her first instance of care. That takes the sting out of the mandate — suddenly, the only people who are forced to participate are the ones who take taxpayer funds. Now, you’ve got a public option that appears to be out of the government’s hands. And Obama’s mandate shift will have placed the onus of the mandate on those who are already government’s “takers,” not “givers.” And perhaps most importantly, the President would show that he’s willing to take charge and make changes in response to public concerns. The rest of the plan — the guaranteed issue, the taxes, the Medicare cuts, the rationing – would remain. Nothing could be more positive for the Obama Administration. And nothing would be more harmful for the future of the country.
To quote our President’s favorite phrase, let me be clear: I have no desire for this President to recover his popularity. While some of these changes are things I would favor in isolation, together they would give great momentum to an agenda that would threaten our future. But I also have no expectation that this White House could bring itself to make these minor course corrections in service of their larger goals. And thus, this nation’s fragile promise lives on.