Drive a message. Regardless of whether he chooses to fight or negotiate, Obama needs to pick a message and stick with it. Virtually since the moment he entered office, Obama’s team has been buffeted by major events that required immediate attention, ranging from the impending economic collapse to the Arab Spring to the debt-ceiling deadline.
That’s prevented the White House from sticking with a single, consistent theme -- even Democrats joke about the number of times the White House has said it is "pivoting" to focus on jobs. Again, the jobs bill provides an opportunity to repeat a mantra. Obama is already repeating his “Pass this bill” line continuously. He needs to do it even more often. “Repeat ‘Pass this jobs bill’ 50 times a day until the election,” one leading Democrat advised.
And the message should fire up the base. As Obama tacks toward the middle, he is giving Democrats a chance to snipe from the margins. That feeds a media hungry for evidence of a party in chaos. Privately, even some Obama campaign advisers say the candidate needs to spend more time repairing a damaged relationship with the party’s two bases – the one on Capitol Hill that can actually pass Obama’s agenda, and the one outside the Beltway that will get him reelected. “You can get lots of independents by standing for what you believe,” the leading Democrat said.
Blame Bush. Facts, as they say, are stubborn things. And the fact is, the economic downturn began under George W. Bush. While the stimulus package has not dragged the economy out of the great recession, and while most economists believe the jobs bill wouldn’t provide a terminal solution either, some Democrats still believe there is candy in the Bush pinata.
“The White House or the president’s campaign needs to establish a narrative for the vast majority of the country that’s in the middle of the ideological spectrum that explains how we got into our current economic situation,” said one adviser to a Democratic Senate candidate. “It is completely reasonable for the head of one of the two major political parties to make the case for why the other party’s positions significantly contributed to our taking the wrong turn. In other words, it isn’t some historical accident that our economy is as fragile as it is today.”
Republicans scoff at the notion of blaming Bush, and the White House has not helped itself by admitting, on many occasions, that they own the economy. But polls show a significant slice of the American electorate still blame Bush. (The latest: An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, released last week, that shows 53 percent of voters, and 54 percent of independents, blame Bush, while just 27 percent of independents and 32 percent of voters overall blame Obama.) The White House has yet to aggressively tell those voters what they already believe.
Clean house. In an editorial for CNN, James Carville had some blunt advice for the president: “Fire somebody. No -- fire a lot of people.” A big slice of the Democratic establishment, both on and off Capitol Hill, agree.
Democrats and the media regularly slammed Bush for relying too heavily on a small, rigid inner circle. Obama does the same. A major staff turnover after the midterm elections brought in new faces, but the overhaul traded one Chicagoland insider, Emanuel, for another, Bill Daley. Now Daley is taking flak, with critics both inside and outside the White House wondering whether he is the competent manager with a spine of steel he was billed as.
To broaden his circle of advisers, Obama needs to “bring in some people who are outside his comfort zone, people who aren’t just from Chicago and who didn't work in his last campaign,” said a former Democratic member of Congress. “One of the most outrageous and short-sighted things this administration has done is to ban everyone who is a registered lobbyist from serving on a government board or commission (even in a non-paid capacity). There are dozens of former Democratic congressmen (who are registered lobbyists) who would love to help the administration but who are precluded from doing so by this dumb policy.”
Talk less, listen more. Running for reelection in 1996, Bill Clinton spent countless hours in roundtable settings, listening to regular Americans tell their own stories. "It bored the hell out of everyone, me included," joked former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry in an e-mail. But it worked: The roundtables gave Clinton anecdotes to weave into his stump speech, moments that indicated he was listening to voters and understood their concerns.
McCurry advised Obama to take a page from the Clinton playbook. “Make a part of every event you do a ‘listening’ roundtable for the president with real people who have real stories,” he said. “The press won’t cover it but it is about putting the president in a place to hear stories that he can remember and retell himself, and it is also about showing that he cares for people and takes the time to listen to what they have to say. He needs to speak less and listen more.”