Despite the best efforts of President Obama and leaders in Congress, it’s becoming clearer by the day that both are in need of a dramatically new direction. Unemployment is not improving, raising serious doubts about the Democrats’ fiscal policy agenda. Uncertainty about Afghanistan threatens to undermine progress in the region and further diminish confidence here at home. Enacting meaningful and cost-efficient health-care reform is hanging on by a thread.
Additionally, independent voters – the critical bloc that handed Mr. Obama the keys to the Oval Office – have turned against his pro-spending agenda.
All presidents learn the lesson that they cannot bend history to their will. Plan A is almost always impossible and successful presidents learn to pivot to Plan B.
Fortunately, there is a proven Plan B strategy Mr. Obama can follow. It’s the modern day version of the Bill Clinton playbook, post-1994. It calls for separating from liberal old bulls in Congress, embracing the Republicans’ most common sense proposals, serving as the responsible guardian of the republic from the excesses of each, and viewing every policy idea through the prism of economic growth and opportunity.
What should the strategy look like now?
It starts with building a new national consensus with a sense of common purpose. Mr. Obama should address the nation to lament the partisanship that has overtaken nearly every facet of his administration’s first-year agenda, remind the American people that blue states and red states exist only in political punditry, and acknowledge that as circumstances have changed, so should our collective goals and policy priorities.
In the address, he reaffirms his position that a consensus on health care reform is essential to stabilizing the economy, reducing the deficit, and creating new jobs. But he also acknowledges that the system can only be reformed in the context of cost containment, broad economic growth and continued research, investment and private-sector innovation.
And as such, he invites a hand-picked group of moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans to the White House to negotiate a new, modest, bipartisan proposal to cut the deficit, create jobs, and introduce incremental reforms to our health care and energy systems.
For Mr. Obama, it means embracing popular conservative ideas like tort reform and interstate competition, alongside popular liberal ideas like guaranteed coverage despite pre-existing conditions. He should champion a sensible, moderate middle ground, like Olympia Snowe’s “trigger” and Tom Carper’s “hammer,” both of which would delay the implementation of the public option, until at least other reforms are first absorbed into the system.
It means dramatically scaling back the tax increases and Medicare cuts, in deference to the temporary recession, while reminding Americans that when times improve, tough decisions must be revisited. For now, though, offer the bipartisan negotiators a portion of unspent stimulus money to defray the costs of health care or job creation -- even offer Republicans some of it for a job-creating tax cut.
Above all, it means tying health care reform to complementary proposals to grow the economy, decrease the deficit, cut back wasteful spending, accelerate work on the new electricity grid and other urgent, job-creating programs. In the process, transform it from a conspicuous distraction to a seamlessly integrated part of a larger agenda that speaks to the nation’s immediate needs.
On taxes, Mr. Obama should encourage temporary payroll tax holidays to help small businesses struggling to survive the recession, not allow the Bush-era tax cuts to expire in 2010 and publicly recognize the power of tax incentives to create high-paying private sector jobs. Every tax policy and program should be scrubbed for immediate potential to create jobs and if it doesn't meet a specific set of criteria, it should be set aside indefinitely.
On Afghanistan, the administration should embrace centrist, cost-effective ideas, such as Senator Nelson’s (D-Neb.) proposal to reintroduce the sale of war bonds that helped fund World War II. With the government sitting on more than $17 billion in war bonds, any alternative measure, including the introduction of a war tax against a bleak economic forecast, would further undermine the American people’s confidence in our mission and carry serious consequences for both Democrats and Republicans in the 2010 elections.
With a revised agenda rooted in a sense of common purpose and based on proven pro-growth principles, centrist Democrats would be relieved, independents would be reenergized, and most Republicans would simply try to take credit. A new governing coalition would emerge with the president at its head. Members of Congress who reject the new consensus would marginalize themselves on both sides.
This is not only the best chance Mr. Obama has to rescue health care reform, create jobs, fix the economy and sufficiently justify our ongoing presence in Afghanistan -– it could be the ONLY chance to reclaim his agenda and preserve the Democratic congressional majorities he needs to convince the American people that he's worthy of a second term.
Doug Schoen is a pollster, author and Fox News contributor.