Crunch Time for Obama

While August has been a historically quiet month for U.S. presidents, a series of recent polls indicate that it has become a now or never moment for President Obama's political relevance and viability.

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News public opinion survey shows steadily eroding support on the president's health care proposal, and more generally, his lowest registered job approval ratings since taking office nearly eight months ago. Personally, Mr. Obama remains popular, but he's witnessing backward movement on nearly every major policy reform initiative proposed -- climate change, the economy and the debate over how to reform the nation's ailing health-care system, just to name a few.

Moreover, feelings are becoming more hardened and intense, clearly evident in recent coverage of protests against his health care reform proposal in key congressional districts throughout the country.

The Rasmussen Presidential Approval Index shows steady movement towards voters feeling "very dissatisfied" with the way Mr. Obama is performing his role as president, as opposed to those who say they feel "very satisfied," peaking at minus 12 points during the first week of August.

The reason for all of this is simple: Mr. Obama, despite his popularity, is proposing policies that are out of sync with a center-right electorate. Specifically, only two in ten Americans are liberal, close to four in ten are conservative and a third are moderate. However, a poll conducted by Scott Rasmussen last week shows that nearly half of all Americans now identify Mr. Obama as being "very liberal" -- up 15 points from January -- and less than 10 percent see him as a conservative.

There is still time for Mr. Obama to change his approach in advance of the upcoming Congressional elections, but time is running out.

Fortunately, history can serve an important guide. I faced a nearly identical set of challenges in 1995 when I helped reshape the policies of the early Clinton administration, which at the time was perceived as catering to left-wing ideologues, to a more centrist philosophy aligned with the middle-of-the-road Democratic Leadership Council that Mr. Clinton helped found.

When I first met with Mr. Clinton following the devastating 1994 mid-term election, he put it to me this way:

"I'm way out of position. I was elected as a centrist, and now I'm perceived as a liberal Democrat. I've got to change that, and I've got to put some space between myself and Congress."

And change that we did -- with a bold new agenda that included a balanced budget that protected Medicare and Medicaid, protection of the environment, frank acknowledgement of the limits of government, bi-partisan welfare reform and tough anti-crime legislation.

Mr. Obama still has time to avoid repeating the mistakes of the first Clinton term, but it will take a fundamental and near-term shift in ideology, approach and commitment to regain the momentum he earned after a campaign in which he promised policy objectives similar to those offered during the 1992 election.

Let's be clear, the Republicans do not have any policies and they do not have any ideas. Their agenda is based totally on opposition to the Democrats and so far this is proving to be successful.  But with a bipartisan, centrist agenda that emphasizes growth, low taxes, fiscal prudence and common sense policies, Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats can isolate Republicans -- whose approval rating has fallen to a record low -- while preventing the loss of 40-50 vulnerable Democratic House seats won during the last two Congressional elections, and as many as seven in the Senate.

In order to make this a reality, Mr. Obama needs a new blueprint based on the following pro-growth principles:

Prioritizing U.S. Innovation, Competitiveness and Fiscal Responsibility.  The American people want innovation, economic growth, deficit reduction, and most of all, good-paying jobs. They recognize that the stimulus package, as currently crafted, likely won't produce anything other than temporary, short-term jobs. There needs to be a new set of policies and priorities that focus on small business expansion and entrepreneurship, education and vocational training, along with initiatives that promote free trade and open markets. This is what is needed to pull us out of what will soon be double-digit unemployment and help increase our nation's long-term competitiveness.

In addition, Mr. Obama should make entitlement reform a priority by appointing a bipartisan commission not unlike the one led by former Senators Dole and Moynihan in 1983. With members of Congress already voicing support for such an effort, the purpose of a 2009 Commission would be to examine and effectively address Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security during Mr. Obama's first term in office.

Creating Jobs at Every Turn. With unemployment approaching 10 percent, Mr. Obama cannot afford to ignore the need to create new jobs in everything he does. Politically speaking, health care cannot come at the expense of fixing the nation's economic woes, nor can fixing the economy equate to the failure of a bipartisan health care package. Every policy, program and spending initiative should be scrubbed for immediate potential to create new jobs. If it doesn't meet a specific threshold or set of criteria, it should be set aside for a later date.

Anti-Inflation, Common-Sense Health Care. Mr. Obama should embrace ideas that take the focus off of higher taxes and public vs. private -- the source of the majority of confusion -- and prioritize job creation, health information technology, rethinking incentive and performance standards and alleviating the growing pressure on small businesses and middle class taxpayers.

The administration needs to move towards incrementalism in terms of expansion of care and integrating policies such as those offered by Senators Wyden (D-Ore.) and Bennett (R-Utah) that will help us move slowly but surely to broader coverage. He should refrain from sweeping measures that would attempt to cover all 47 million uninsured immediately, and must recognize that there need not be any government-run option.

Cultivating a 21st Century Workforce. Stricter educational standards, greater choice, merit pay for teachers and an overall focus on early childhood education will only help Mr. Obama in the long term. Given that education was one of his key themes during the 2008 campaign, Mr. Obama can help drive his economic and innovation agendas by supporting programs that provide funding for job-training programs critical to preparing America's workforce for new opportunities once the economy improves.

Taking a Practical Approach to Energy Innovation. When it comes to energy, Mr. Obama needs a key legislative victory- --not a grand finale -- to boost confidence of voters and prevent a 1994-like deathblow. Above all, his plan must move us in the direction of development of alternative energies.  Investment and development of clean and renewable energy programs will generate billions of dollars and encourage further growth in the private sector. Options like investing in smart grids, doing more to promote energy efficiency, providing tax incentives for developing greener technologies and expanding nuclear energy are critical to ensuring continued support and progress on the issue.

The stakes could not be higher. While Mr. Obama is vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, members of Congress will be taking the pulse of their constituents back home, and it's already clear what their constituents are saying -- they're afraid of higher taxes, government-run health care, and an economic agenda that appears to be delivering higher pay for Wall Street at the expense of jobs for average Americans. The opposition to Mr. Obama is not some right-wing conspired initiative, but a clear and frank expression of the frustration of the American people -- Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike.

Mr. Obama needs to deliver a bold new speech and set a new agenda for the country -- not engage in platitudes and abstract principles.  With a new, centrist agenda, and an outreach to Republican minorities in the House and the Senate -- along the lines that he promised during the 2008 campaign -- Mr. Obama can turn around his political standing and give the American people the policy initiatives they have been expecting since Inauguration Day.