President Obama’s acceptance speech should be judged on whether he succeeds in convincing Americans, or at least swing voters, that the next four years will be better than the last four years—or that he will be more effective in the next four years than the last four. Less important is the issue that seems to be preoccupying the media: Ronald Reagan’s question of 32 years ago, “Are you better off today than four years ago.”
The “four-years-ago” formulation is a bit problematic. Four years ago, the economy was already headed toward a cliff. Lehman Brothers was about to go under, causing a near-collapse of our whole financial system. By the time Obama was sworn into office, we had already gone off the cliff. The four-years-ago formulation gets way too complicated under these circumstances. But Americans care more about the future than the past—about improving their own lives rather than taking a more Old Testament approach to settling scores. Obama’s challenge is to argue why and how things will get better.
Explaining how he will be more effective may be more difficult. During Obama’s first two years in office, he had a big majority in the Senate (59 seats for a time, 60 for a while) along with a fat majority in the House. During the second half of his term, the House majority was gone, but Democrats still had a 53-47 majority in the Senate. It’s pretty unlikely that Democrats will capture a House majority this time. The Senate is likely to be split 50-50, give or take a seat or two, but no matter what, Democrats won’t be holding 60 or 59 or even 53 seats. So the political terrain is likely to be more difficult, not less.
But even putting aside the partisan splits in Congress, whether Obama could be more effective in a second term than in his first depends on whether he decides to actually interact with Congress. It is instructive to be reading Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which explores Johnson’s approach to power. Congress was different then, and Johnson could deal with just a few leaders. Obama doesn’t have that luxury. Politico reported in May that Obama had not had a single substantive conversation this year, in person or on the phone, with Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the chairman of the Budget Committee, or Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which also covers the critical student-loan issue. That’s mind-boggling. Conrad and Harkin aren’t two back-bench House freshmen from the opposition party; they are heads of key committees, and they once were Obama’s Democratic Senate colleagues, to boot.
Effective congressional relations can’t be outsourced: Key members must be dealt with directly, not just through the leadership. Obama’s failure to do this isn’t something that can be blamed on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell or House Speaker John Boehner—or even the much-vilified tea party freshmen. To be a more effective president, Obama will need to be a different president than the one he has been for four years. That means dealing with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and not just the handful with round-the-clock Capitol Police protection.
In Obama’s acceptance speech, I will be listening for whether he shows the capacity to learn from his mistakes and to approach his job in a more effective way, regardless of the outcome in other elections or who is in the majority in the House and the Senate.