Be More Like Teddy

How can the president lift his sagging poll numbers? By embracing his fallen mentor's mantle: bash Wall Street and re-connect with the middle class.

08.26.09 1:01 PM ET

Without Ted Kennedy's decision to back Barack Obama at a crucial moment, it is very difficult to imagine the young upstart defeating the Clinton machine, which had grown accustomed to grinding its enemies underfoot. Some said that Kennedy saw Obama as an heir to his family's political tradition. As a passionate and urbane liberal, Obama bore more than a passing resemblance to JFK. It took a long and painful decade for Ted Kennedy to surrender his own presidential ambitions, and he may well have seen his dramatic and fulsome endorsement of Obama as his last chance to restore Camelot. We'll never know. We do know, however, that after Kennedy realized he'd never be president, he emerged as one of the most effective legislators in the history of Congress, with a staff famous for its prodigious work ethic and mastery of detail. Regardless of where you stand on Obama's health reform effort, there's something more than a little tragic about the fact that Sen. Kennedy wasn't able to see through the kind of universal health system he advocated for years. As the Obamas enjoy a richly deserved vacation, one can't help but wonder about the thoughts running through the president's head.

It is insane for Obama to be intimidated by a Republican opposition that is still in disarray. He needs to be more aggressive, not less.

With a job approval rating of 51 percent according to Gallup, President Obama is not in the direst political shape. At the tail end of his second term, George W. Bush would have envied those numbers. Yet Obama's approval rating has been sliding downwards, most precipitously among voters aged 18 to 29. Among the elderly, who were never favorably disposed to the whippersnapper president, there is growing discontent, which in some cases has boiled over into fist-shaking rage. As 2010 approaches, Republicans are having increasing success with fundraising and candidate recruitment, despite the fact that congressional Republicans are even less popular than widely loathed congressional Democrats. Obama's stumbles have convinced at least some optimistic Republicans that 2010 will be a wave election in the vein of 1994 and 2006, one that leads scores of seats to change hands. That probably won't happen, but if Democrats lose, say, two to three dozen seats in the House, which is well within the realm of possibility, Blue Dogs will have even more of a stranglehold on the president's legislative agenda.

There is a sense among observers on the left and right that something has gone badly wrong, that the White House has lost the plot. Paul Krugman of The New York Times is convinced that the president's weakness and vacillation are to blame. Rather than make the case for a robustly progressive agenda, Obama has compromised too much, and in the process he's sacrificed the clarity and conviction he needs to win the public. Conservatives, in contrast, tend to argue that the president has overreached, and that he'd be wise to scale back his ambitions even further. William McGurn, writing in The Wall Street Journal, is convinced that by abandoning health reform and endorsing ideas championed by the Republican opposition, Obama can recreate Bill Clinton's stunning political success.

Leaving my own preferences aside—I'd love to see the president wake up one morning and decide that he's a conservative reformer, but I don't think that's very likely—my sense is that McGurn is misreading the mood of the electorate, and that Krugman, a brilliant economist who's not always politically astute, is actually closer to the mark. To get his presidency back on track, Obama needs to reinvent himself as a wild-eyed populist, the kind who enthusiastically bashes Wall Street and promises to personally deliver a chicken in every pot.

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When Ronald Reagan was first elected, his victory was interpreted as an ideological one: movement conservatism had finally arrived. And yet the truth was more prosaic. The state of the economy led voters to want change, and Reagan promised change. Once in office, he delivered perceptible change, first in the form of a ferocious recession designed to kill inflation and then in the form of a robust recovery. Voters didn't pay close attention to the details of tax and regulatory policy then, and they don't now. Instead, they pay attention to signals and cues about what matters most to a president. During the campaign, Obama benefited from the perception that he was more in touch with the economic anxieties of average voters than his opponent. One gets the impression that Obama's cerebral and somewhat detached public persona has undermined that perception in the months since the election.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post published a fantastic dispatch by Sandhya Somashekhar on Virginia's gubernatorial race. Somashekhar interviewed a number of Obama voters who felt sorely disappointed by what they saw as the president's failures, and they were thus tempted to support Republican candidates. Interestingly, they didn't see Obama's supposed embrace of big-spending liberalism as his central failure; rather, they believed that while he was bailing out rich bankers, he wasn't doing nearly enough for working and middle class families. Stephanie Slater, who according to Somashekhar leans Republican, was most frustrated by Obama's failure to curb excessive Wall Street compensation and to aggressively regulate credit companies. Neither of these are positions you'd associate with the free market right. Rather, we associate attacks on predatory lenders and financial tycoons with the populist left. Chris Ann Cleland, Slater's neighbor, was upset about Obama's failure to do more to help homeowners. To the extent these voters are concerned about spending, their concerns are rooted in the threat of higher taxes.

The political antidote is awfully simple: call for a sweeping right-to-rent for foreclosed homeowners, an idea championed by liberal economist Dean Baker; keep hammering home the notion that only the rich will see tax increases, despite the fact that taxes will eventually have to increase for everyone; and find new and creative ways to stick it to wealthy bankers. On that last front, a number of economists, including Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, proposed lower-cost alternatives to the bailouts that were never seriously pursued. Going forward, it's hard to think of populist measures that are also good policy, but that's not the central issue: the public wants to know that Obama is on their side.

Obama's central legislative mistake has been conceding too much to the likes of Montana's Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who is, to the delight of Republicans, the person most responsible for breaking the president's winning streak. In recent weeks, Democrats have been floating the idea of splitting health-reform legislation in two pieces, one of which can be passed through budget reconciliation and another of which can be passed through normal channels. Without getting into the gory details, the basic idea is that this would enable moderate Senate Democrats to vote for the parts of health reform that come across as innocuous while voting against those that seem more risque. Politically speaking, the White House should do whatever it takes to make this happen. That will require treading very lightly if not abandoning efforts to reform Medicare, my favorite aspect of the Obama approach to health care. Republicans have tried to position themselves, bizarrely and depressingly to many conservatives, as the staunchest defenders of the obscenely expensive single-payer system that is Medicare. Obama can't get outflanked on this front. This also means abandoning his plans to roll back Medicare Advantage, a decidedly imperfect program created by Republicans to inject more competition and cost control into Medicare.

The Daily Beast's Complete Kennedy Coverage: Tributes, Photos, and VideosThis week, some have cynically suggested that the Obama White House announced the reappointment of Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve to distract attention from new projections of yawning deficits. A more effective way to squelch fears about the deficit would be for President Obama to focus all of his rhetorical energies on job creation. I'm personally very skeptical about the virtues of another economic stimulus package, an endorsed by liberal economists like Krugman and Brad DeLong. Yet I don't accept the widely held view that it would be a political disaster, particularly if it took the form of, say, a highly visible cut in payroll taxes.

I can't imagine that President Obama will take my advice. And I'm glad he won't, as I'm very concerned about rising debt levels. But in crudely political terms, it is insane for Obama to be intimidated by a Republican opposition that is still in disarray. He needs to be more aggressive, not less.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.