June 6, 2013

E.J. Dionne’s column in today’s Washington Post asks the question of what Obama is fighting for in his second term. The White House can usually look to E.J. for very friendly advice and he is familiar with what Team Obama is thinking at any given time. So his observations about the Obama White House must be taken seriously.

Dionne argues that President Obama needs to “grab the country’s attention again with a broader campaign for a growing and more just economy.” But hidden between the lines of what E.J. writes is the fact that Obama and the Democrats don’t have an affirmative agenda. And we really do have problems that the White House needs to work on. In politics, being reelected doesn’t mean you get your way; it means you get to keep trying.  And from the looks of things, I fear the Obama administration has quit trying. We’ve all witnessed the recent acts of defiance, the taunts and partisan harangues that have become this administration’s trademark approach to the challenges they face, but none of this amounts to an agenda for the next three years — or is even good politics in the near-term.

At some point, non-feasance allows our problems to become worse and inaction becomes malfeasance. For Democrats to do well in 2014, they’re going to have to show that they can govern effectively, and that starts with the president. Just blaming Republicans won’t produce the turnout Democrats will need next year.

Starting this week, the president will be compelled to spend a lot of time on the implementation of Obamacare. It isn’t so much an opportunity as it is an obligation he can’t escape. He has to get out there and sell it, despite the growing unpopularity of his signature accomplishment. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released today shows that 49 percent of Americans think the health care law is a “bad idea” — a new high — and 38 percent believe it will make them worse off. So his one “must-do” is an uphill climb at best, and he hasn’t articulated any other realistic agenda items that he will pursue.

In the meantime, I hope Republicans don’t solely define themselves as fist-shaking scandal exploiters. We don’t have to overreach in order to generate concern about these scandals, and we need to be conscious of prioritizing our fights. We should not confuse the seriousness of finding out who ordered — and who knew about — the IRS harassment and slow-walking of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status with the petty, headline-grabbing antics of federal employees raiding a hotel minibar or burying forbidden items on a hotel bill. (Fair disclosure: Since the statute of limitations has run out, when I was a young traveling aide in the Reagan White House, I knew something about the latter.) While some of the clownish IRS videotapes and travel escapades are irresistible, they can’t appear to become the focus of our oversight investigations.

We are 17 months away from the midterm elections. I wouldn’t trade places with the Democrats today. The burden is on them to advocate a positive agenda and escape the pit they have fallen in. Republicans can afford to go slow.