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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dionne: Obama Must Use His Leverage to Change the Debate

WaPo columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr. understands as well as any pundit that there is only so much President Obama can do in terms of needed reforms with the Republican majority hell-bent on sabotaging his presidency at every opportunity. But Dionne believes the president still has some unused leverage in his ability to change the “nation’s political conversation,” and it’s time to use it. As Dionne writes,

…The talk in Washington has been dominated by the same stuff we obsessed over in 2010, 2011 and 2012: a monotonous, uninspiring, insider clash over budgets. Even in that context, we barely discuss what government can do that would be helpful (except to air travelers).
Obama’s defenders say that D.C. dysfunction should be laid at the feet of Republicans in Congress who are so invested in his failure that they even vote against things they are for. That’s what Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) says happened on background checks.
Rather than criticize the president, says former chief White House speechwriter Jon Favreau, those who want him to succeed need to hold Republicans in the House and Senate accountable. The president can’t do it by himself, Favreau said in the Daily Beast. He needs help from his supporters.
Well, sure. To pretend that the president can magically get an increasingly right-wing Republican House and Senate contingent to do his bidding is either naive or willfully misleading. The GOP really does hope that blocking whatever Obama wants will steadily weaken him.
But the president also needs to ask himself why even his supporters are growing impatient. His whole budget strategy, after all, is directed almost entirely toward gently coaxing Republicans his way, without any concern as to whether what he is doing is demobilizing the very people he needs on his side now.

Dionne argues that President Obama needs to use more stick with the carrots he offers the Republicans. With respect to Social Security indexing, for example :

…Such a major step toward the Republicans should be taken only in return for concrete concessions from them on the need for more revenue…If Obama wants to underscore that his problem is Republican obstruction, he should tell those GOP senators he likes to dine with that they need to come up with revenue very soon or else he’ll withdraw that “chained CPI” offer he claims not to like much anyway. Put up or shut up is a cliche, but a useful one.

The president should also make stronger use of the bully pulpit, says Dionne, to put reforms like the much-needed minimum wage hike, funding for infrastructure upgrades and pre-K education in the national conversation. Yes Obama has spoken out eloquently on these issues, but Dionne argues that he needs to amp it up, “a consistent, driving theme: that the stakes in this debate are larger than the day-to-day drone of partisan invective suggests.”
It’s a fair point. If President Bush can create a widely-accepted meme about WMD’s out of pure fantasy and make it stick, President Obama ought to be able to do a lot more than has been done so far with the undeniable reality of our urgent need for infrastructure upgrades.
The Republicans can continue their knee-jerk obstruction of all of the president’s proposed reforms, and will do so as long as they have enough wiggle room. But if Obama fully leverages his power to create a more heated national dialogue about these and other highly-popular reforms, he just might be able to shake loose enough votes among his adversaries to enact the needed legislation — or send them packing in 2014.

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