CORRECTION: The original version of this column gave the incorrect campaign that Stacie Paxton worked on in 2004. She worked on John Kerry's campaign.
After a difficult summer of political and legislative setbacks that has the White House and congressional Democrats on their heels, the party would be wise to remember Rahm Emanuel’s axiom: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
Make no mistake, Democrats’ political fortunes right now are in a state of crisis, and it’s a good time to remember the former White House chief of staff’s advice. The party has just lost a special election in heavily Democratic New York City, in a manner that suggests one of their key voting blocs, Jewish voters, may be ready to bolt to the GOP. The Democratic National Committee was outraised in August by its Republican counterpart, even with the help of mega-bashes thrown to honor Obama’s 50th birthday. And the president's approval ratings are sinking to new lows, both nationally and in key states like California, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
By themselves, none of those data points suggest a party in peril. With the election 14 months away, Obama's approval rating has time to rebound. A few million dollars in an election that will cost billions are insignificant. And special elections are odd beasts that serve as unreliable indicators of the national mood. But put them together and the outlook gets downright scary.
How can the White House turn things around? Democratic strategists from across the country offer a range of suggestions: Pick a fight. Drive a coherent, consistent message. Bring in a new team. And even play more golf. Here are eight, sometimes contradictory suggestions the White House might want to consider as it tries to rebuild a damaged brand:
Pick a fight. Obama’s first two and a half years in office have shown his instinct for pragmatism. He has offered compromises and negotiations on every major item on his agenda. But he rarely finds a willing negotiating partner, to hear Democrats’ spin. (Republicans would say Obama expects them to acquiesce to his opening position rather than truly hammering out a deal.)
Some Democrats believe Obama must eschew his instinct to sit down with Republican House Speaker John Boehner and instead take a clear stand in opposition to the GOP agenda. “Pick one fight with Republicans and don’t back down,” said Nathan Daschle, the former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. “It’s not just for your base, it’s for all voters who want a president who believes in principle. It’s a balancing act. There is a time for compromise and there is a time to fight. Show us you know the difference."
The jobs bill is a good start, some Democrats say. In introducing the bill last week, Obama displayed an aggressive tone with Congress that he hasn’t in the past, something Democrats say affords him an opportunity to draw a contrast with Republicans. The United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll released this week shows overwhelming majorities favor elements of Obama’s jobs plan, while a slim plurality favor his overall approach over the Republican approach.
“The substance of the president’s plan is more popular than the [Republican] alternative, and what people want now is for their leaders to focus relentlessly on the economic challenge confronting the nation,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic media consultant. “He should stay on the road and keep the same appropriately aggressive tone he displayed in his address to Congress.”
Make a deal. Running against a do-nothing Congress can only get Obama so far. At some point, Obama has to show he has actually taken positive steps toward fixing the economy, whether or not the results are there. Arguing that he’s being hamstrung by an obstructionist Congress could just demonstrate to voters that the incumbent is ineffectual. The best defense, some Democrats contend, is to pass a bill -- any bill -- that Obama can point to on the campaign trail.
“The president needs to pass his jobs package demonstrating to America that he can get something done. This starts by coming up with a real pay-for that is not a repackaging of tax increases that the House already rejected,” said one senior Democratic strategist, who asked that his name be withheld. “Congress may be an obstacle, but running against a do-nothing Congress will not be enough. Americans are hurting and they want results.”
When reelecting a president, a voter’s decision is usually a two-step process: Does the incumbent deserve reelection, and if not, is there a viable alternative? Democrats hope to make the case that the eventual Republican nominee is not a viable alternative. But getting a result on the jobs plan would give Obama’s campaign a chance to answer the first question -- that he deserves reelection -- in a positive way.
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.”
There’s a side benefit to spending time with regular voters who aren’t pre-screened Democrats: Every event wins over a dozen or so new ambassadors willing to tell their friends and relatives just how much Obama understands their hardships. Those new volunteers can expand the Obama campaign's already-massive grassroots efforts.
Get away from Washington. Physically, Obama is doing so. This week alone, he has traveled to Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina. Next week, he will head back to Ohio, and Joe Biden is logging travel miles, too. But verbally, Obama is speaking as if he were on the Senate floor rather than among Americans who could care less about the legislative inner workings of Washington.
“People respond to real people, facing real hardship, and they want to hear what their leaders are doing to fix their problems. There’s too much talk about super committees, bills, and budgets,” said Stacie Paxton, a public relations strategist at Hill and Knowlton who worked at the Democratic National Committee and for John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. “I wouldn’t say ‘Pass this bill,’ I’d say, ‘Create jobs now.’ I don’t think most Americans could tell you what’s in the president’s jobs bill, what it does or how it would benefit their lives.”
Play more golf. Well, at least play golf with the right people. Obama’s predecessors, Bush and Clinton, used their weekend golf games to hobnob with influential business executives, big thinkers, rival politicians, and others outside their inner circle.
Obama, by striking contrast, is more apt to hit the links with his closest aides. Occasionally, he'll duff with someone outside that circle; he recently played a round with Vernon Jordan, and he and Boehner beat Biden and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the early days of the debt-ceiling debate. But the regular outing is more likely to include the White House trip director and a former press aide.
“I think he probably got something out of taking John Boehner golfing,” said one frustrated Democratic strategist. “But whether it’s labor leaders or business leaders, Republicans or Democrats, don’t waste three golf slots on staff that don’t need to be star-gazing at you all the time. It’s a missed opportunity. You’re on the links for four hours. You can do a lot of work there. You need to use every opportunity you have right now, and that’s a missed opportunity. A lot of business gets done on golf courses.”
The book is not closed on Obama’s chances at reelection yet. But losing a special election in New York City could be the end of a disastrous summer chapter if the White House is willing and able to turn the page. Whether that includes picking a fight or making a deal, leaving Washington or heading out on the links, Democrats all agree the current course is untenable, and a new narrative needs to be written.