This piece appeared in Thursday’s edition of the Roanoke Times. While the piece is framed, for strategic reasons, as a critique of President Obama — a valid critique in my view — the true main points of the argument are 1) the abominable conduct of the Republicans (which I continue to believe is, and has been over the past decade and more, one of the major stories in all of American history), and 2) the opportunity their conduct presents — to President Obama and to all Democrats — to attack and, it is hoped, to defeat them.
Five years into his presidency, we can say that in many respects Barack Obama has been a good president. He has addressed genuine national problems. The solutions he has proposed have been constructive. And his communications to the American people have mostly been sensible and honest.
But President Obama has failed in one important area (and it is not in the highly embarrassing, but essentially temporary, botch of the roll-out of the Obamacare website). Where Obama has failed is in not fighting harder against an opposition party whose obstructiveness – and destructiveness – have been extraordinary by the standards of the American political tradition.
It’s easy to demonstrate Obama’s failure. He wanted the politics of his era to be, “The Republicans and I together can get good things done.” The Republicans have striven for a politics of, “We’re going to keep you from accomplishing anything.” Which side would you say has prevailed?
Some say that no one can force cooperation from politicians. I say, “Nonsense.” Only the president has the bully pulpit, and great presidents have used it to dominate the politics of their times. President Obama has been in a position, all along, to compel the Republicans to clean up their act or be driven into oblivion.
All it takes is focusing the public’s attention on the ugly things the Republicans have been up to. Take the one time President Obama took a strong position and stood his ground — the crisis in late September and early October over the government shutdown and the GOP threat to push the nation into default. The Republicans sunk so low in public esteem during that destructive display that they were compelled to give in.
President Obama could have prevailed in previous showdowns – using each crisis the Republicans created to show how they were abusing our democracy — but instead he chose to cave. Again and again, Obama misread the true nature of his opposition, and so he failed at what has been Job One for him since his first inauguration: to expose the Republicans’ destructiveness so that they would either play a constructive role or be rejected by the people.
In this fall’s showdown, it was the Republicans who insisted on the spotlight. But these same Republicans consistently provide a target-rich selection of political misconduct on which the President can focus national attention.
On many important issues, the polls show that strong majorities of Americans – sometimes even a majority of Republican voters — want action.
• Universal background checks for gun purchases (even a majority of NRA members favor this)
• A program to create jobs for Americans
• Immigration reform
• Raising the minimum wage
• Even on climate change, the latest polls show the American people want their government to act, but nothing can get through this Republican House.
On all these issues, clear majorities of the American people want something done — and President Obama wants something done – but on all of them this least-accomplished Congress in American history has been immobilized by the Republicans who control the House of Representatives.
President Obama has one more chance to move this country forward: the 2014 congressional elections.
Every day between now and election day the President can hammer the Republicans on how they are frustrating the public’s will.
Hammer them on background checks. Hammer them on immigration reform. Hammer them on their disgraceful climate change denial, done in service of the energy companies at the expense of our children’s and grandchildren’s future. Hammer them on the whole broad pattern of indifference to what the country needs and wants.
Just as with the government shutdown and the debt-ceiling blackmail, the President can use the bully pulpit to help the American people see how un-American, unpatriotic, and downright un-conservative today’s Republican Party has become.
When the path of destructiveness gets separated from the path of political survival in the coming elections, the Republicans will have to choose between them. It’s not entirely clear which path the GOP would choose, so far has much of that party strayed from political normality. But either way, America wins.
It’s Obama’s most important job to make those paths diverge. Until the recent showdown, the President has failed at that job. But it is not too late for him to succeed.