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Obama's opportunity to be the decider

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President Obama touched down in a rainy Portuguese capital Friday morning. He's in Lisbon for two days of meetings with NATO allies and the European Union.

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, November 19, 2010

We don't define periods in American history by who held the majority in Congress. It was the Reagan Era, not the Tip O'Neill Era - just as we're now living in the Obama Era, no matter what John Boehner or Mitch McConnell might hope.

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President Obama is being inundated with contradictory advice on what to do next, now that his party is losing its majority in the House and will have weaker control of the Senate. Most of the punditocracy's counsel centers on how Obama should greet the strengthened and emboldened Republican opposition.

With a defiant, Churchillian vow to fight in the committees, on the beaches, etc., but "never surrender" to the encroaching hordes? With a broad smile and an invitation to join hands in bipartisan compromise, and perhaps a singalong around the campfire? With a somewhat less genuine smile and a series of maneuvers, in concert with the Democratic leaders in Congress, that forces congressional Republicans to cast politically difficult votes?

For what it's worth, my advice for Obama is to forget the Republicans. Not literally, of course - the new House leadership is going to make itself hard to ignore. But ultimately, it's the president who sets the agenda and who ultimately is held accountable for America's successes and failures. Obama's focus should be on using all the tools at his disposal to move the country in the direction he believes it must go.

A new report by the Center for American Progress - a think tank headed by John Podesta, former chief of staff to Bill Clinton - seeks to remind Obama that shepherding legislation through Congress is only one of the ways a president can get things done.

Presidents can issue executive orders, the report notes. They can use their rulemaking powers, working through federal agencies that already have broad mandates under law. They can forge public-private partnerships. They can shape world events through diplomacy and command of the armed forces.

"The ability of President Obama to accomplish important change through these powers should not be underestimated," Podesta said in a statement accompanying the report. "President Bush, for example, faced a divided Congress throughout most of his term in office, yet few can doubt his ability to craft a unique and deeply conservative agenda using every aspect of the policymaking apparatus at his disposal."

"Unique and deeply conservative" is an extremely kind way to describe policies that included launching an unwarranted war and approving state-sponsored torture. But the point is well taken: George W. Bush, to the bitter end of his presidency, was the Decider. He wasn't the Negotiator, and he certainly wasn't the Explainer - his recent resurfacing, to publicize his presidential memoir, brings to mind a flood of classic Bushisms, including my all-time favorite about how sometimes you have to "catapult the propaganda." I sincerely hope that someday he records a rap album with his new BFF, Kanye "Conway" West.

But I digress. What's worth noting is that Bush's book is titled "Decision Points" - not "Talking Points" or "Scoring Political Points."

The Center for American Progress report notes that on the economic issues that so absorb the country, Obama has the power to help jump-start the real estate market by issuing orders that could speed the untangling of the foreclosure mess - and also begin to move the vast inventory of foreclosed properties that weighs so heavily on home prices.

He can shape the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the implementation of health-care reform in ways that will produce the quickest and greatest benefits for working families, the report notes. This wouldn't just be good policy, it would be good politics as well. Demonizing "Obamacare" and financial reform as abstract concepts worked well for the Republicans in the midterm campaign, but it won't be a viable strategy if people see - and like - the concrete results.

Progressives are right when they complain that the White House must do a much better job of making the case for its policies. But the challenge goes well beyond communications. Judging by the way they snubbed Obama's invitation to break bread together, Republicans seem eager for gridlock - and the chance to blame the president for not getting anything done.

That may be the GOP's preferred story line, but Obama can write a narrative of his own. He's the Decider now.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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