What should Obama focus on next?

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Post asked political experts where the administration should focus before the midterm elections. Below, contributions from Mark Penn, Ed Rogers, Catherine A. "Kiki" McLean, Matthew Dowd, Geoff Garin, Dan Schnur and Carter Eskew.

MARK PENN

Adviser and pollster to President Bill Clinton and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton; CEO of Burson Marsteller

Between now and the midterms, the administration has to focus on what it can do to provide a sense of economic recovery. Perhaps the best arena for that is in an energy bill that creates a wide array of incentives to produce new forms of energy.

The administration should not make the energy bill principally about climate change. The truth is the economic slowdown has done more to help with climate change than any bill is likely to accomplish in the near term. America wants clean, non-imported, sustainable energy -- and at the same time wants to continue to use all available natural resources here and abroad to keep energy prices down. Even after the BP spill, Americans still support offshore drilling.

There is no way an immigration bill would get done before the midterms, and though the issue tends to fracture the Republican Party, turnout in the midterms suggests that this would not be the ideal time to try to tackle that tumultuous subject.

At this point the deficit is so high that a new round of stimulus would just be putting a target on the back of the administration.

Unemployment benefits need extension. Right now there is no estate tax and won't be unless Congress acts to do something about it. Those are both issues the administration should continue to press.

But the economy and energy are where the administration has to put its legislative bets while it seeks to minimize midterm losses so it can come back from them and keep the country moving forward.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

It's the political season, so the Obama administration will keep its focus on politics. Governing has not been the president's friend in dealing with voters, so rhetoric will rule his days. Serious policy will have to wait for a lame-duck session. Then, after the November election, Democrats can force through the unpopular measures that no sane politician would consider if he had to face the voters again anytime soon.

Surely President Obama will talk about jobs; take credit for what jobs there are and -- to the gullible -- pledge that more are on the way because of his actions. In the few states where he is still welcome, he will appear at stimulus-project construction sites and away-from-the-public fundraisers. On the days when he isn't on the road, he will be photographed with military leaders or have meetings that show how heartless Republicans oppose unemployment benefits and other sympathetic-sounding government programs.

To keep his base from becoming any more demoralized, he will occasionally talk about climate change, immigration and pro-union/anti-business programs.

In the final days of the midterm campaign, the Democrats will, true to form, accuse Republicans of trying to destroy Social Security, promote racism, ruin the environment and anything else that will stir up Democratic votes no matter the facts. They will abandon governing and truth in the interest of reelection.

Call me a cynic, but it is all rather sadly predictable.

CATHERINE A. "KIKI" MCLEAN

Democratic strategist; partner at the public relations firm Porter Novelli

This fall the Obama team should focus on what voters consider to be unfinished business: Jobs, jobs, jobs.

President Obama has led his administration to impressive levels of success. He's worked through his to-do list with focus and discipline, delivering on many campaign promises. Big items on that list: health care, financial regulatory reform, an appointment to the Supreme Court with another success probably looming. The intense scrutiny on the Gulf of Mexico oil leak is likely to lessen since the cap has stopped the flow.

The issue voters are soon to focus on is jobs. And the administration has already begun to answer by putting job creation back in the news with events such as the president's trip last week to Michigan, where the unemployment rate tops 13 percent. Americans won't accept excuses. They will ask where the jobs are. How will we create new jobs? Who has a better plan to put America back to work?

Now is the time for the same level of discipline toward employment that other issues have enjoyed over the past 18 months.

MATTHEW DOWD

Political analyst for ABC News; chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign

In the next 100 days, President Obama and his staff should reread the speeches Obama gave throughout the 2008 campaign. They would realize that the biggest value he ran on and has not accomplished is bringing the country together and getting past the bitter partisanship and rancor in Washington, D.C. In fact, this toxic rancor has grown worse in the past 18 months. The administration should take stock of the fact that of all the things it has done, none has brought Obama the favor of the country as a whole. Americans long for the leader that Obama presented himself as in the campaign.

So in the run-up to Election Day, the administration should get off the partisan campaign trail (when your job-approval rating is in the 40s, being there isn't helping anyone anyway), focus on what the president can do to change the tone in Washington and begin to speak to his own mistakes in adding to the political fighting. Put together a real plan on how to be more bipartisan and restore faith and trust in the federal government as a vehicle of good. Until the president addresses this campaign promise, voters will not reward him on issue victories or bills signed.

Drop the overheated rhetoric and be the head of the country first, not the head of your party.

GEOFF GARIN

Democratic pollster and strategist; president of Hart Research Associates

President Obama can't afford to stop and admire his accomplishments, though they are worth admiring: Wall Street reform, health insurance reform, the rescue of America's auto industry and pulling the country's economy back from the brink of depression. There is, of course, still much work to be done. Jobs and economic renewal are at the top of the list, along with moving the country on a path to a clean-energy future and getting the government back on a sustainable fiscal footing.

But little of what still needs to be accomplished will get done if the Republicans win big in November. So, with just about 100 days to go until the midterm elections, the president should focus next on making the case to the American people about what is at stake and why it matters if they turn Congress back over to the Republicans. This is not just about politics for its own sake. Given the rightward movement of the GOP over the past year, the difference between the two parties in their definition of what a better America looks like and how we should get there is even starker than it was two years ago. At a moment of uncertainty in the country, the president must make the argument for going forward rather than back, and call the question on the Republicans' pro-corporate, anti-government view of the world.

DAN SCHNUR

Chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

The obvious and correct answer is that the administration needs to focus on job creation and economic growth. But that was an equally obvious and correct answer before Wall Street reform passed and the oil leak was plugged. The most difficult question in American politics continues to be not whether President Obama should be talking about the economy but how to do it in a way that voters find to be credible and relevant to their own life challenges.

The president's current fixation seems to be batteries. He has been declaring with some regularity that a new generation of electric power sources can be a solution to the nation's economic and environmental difficulties, and he has chosen an alluring symbol with which to make that case. But even while voters may agree with his premise, the ongoing climate-change debate may prevent his message from having its desired impact.

The need to develop alternative energy sources is the least controversial aspect of the climate-change discussion, and a streamlined bill that focuses on this would probably move through Congress with little difficulty. But the argument over greenhouse gases and even the narrower version of cap-and-trade requirements creates a much greater challenge and sets up the same type of wrestling match over the bill's economic impact that characterized the health-care and regulatory reform efforts. A prolonged fight over climate change this fall may be necessary for other reasons, but it provides Republicans with a potent weapon that can obscure the Obama jobs message.

Talking about the economy is easy. Convincing people that you have the answers is hard. And taking on one more partisan brawl will make a difficult challenge even harder.

CARTER ESKEW

Chief strategist for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign; co-founder of the consulting firm Glover Park Group

The president may be winning history, but he risks losing the political future. Avoiding a depression and passing health care and financial reform have gotten lost in the flow of oil and the sea of joblessness. In recent months, government has looked helpless. But if the cap holds, it's a new day for the president's team. They can add another victory with energy legislation by tying it to national security, jobs and preventing another environmental disaster. The economy still ices their wings, but they will have less static now when trying to make contrasts with the Republicans. The leak was the most damaging political metaphor since a rabbit attacked Jimmy Carter, but our favorite political plot has always been the comeback. Signing a clean energy bill would be a strong first chapter.


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