I hate to say this, but unless President Barack Obama toughens up pretty soon, his presidency could be in trouble. It’s too early to be sure, but the warning signs are beginning to accumulate. If unemployment, now at 9.5 percent, keeps rising, Democrats could lose House and Senate seats in the midterm elections next year, and, though Obama is likely to remain personally popular, support for his policies could collapse.
That is why it is so urgent for the president to abandon his instinctual tendency toward conciliation and compromise, to throw bipartisanship to the winds and take advantage of the opportunity opened up by Al Franken’s long-delayed arrival in the Senate as the 60th Democratic vote. Franken’s victory means that Obama’s party now has the super-majority required to ram through the president’s legislative agenda over weak Republican opposition.
Moreover, as the antics of Sarah Palin, John Ensign and Mark Sanford illustrate, the GOP is currently leaderless and imploding. Now is the time for Obama and the Democrats to strike—to enact sweeping health care reform, programs to address global warming and, most important of all, a second round of economic stimulus to put millions of unemployed people back to work, even if it drives up the deficit to even more gargantuan levels.
As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote recently in the New York Times, “We have the Obama stimulus plan, which aims to create 3 ½ million jobs by late next year. That’s much better than nothing, but it’s not remotely enough.” Or, as a headline in the Washington Post proclaimed, “Rising Joblessness Blunts President’s Plan for Recovery.”
The trouble with Obama is that he doesn’t like to be seen doing the dirty work of domestic politics. He’d rather be delivering high-minded speeches about reducing the size of American and Russian nuclear arsenals than steamrolling the Republicans.
Some of his aloofness, of course, is tactical. As Obama’s chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, points out, the stimulus package passed earlier this year is designed to be more effective next year than this year—which might turn things around and get the economy going again just in time for the 2010 elections. But that’s quite a gamble.
And even if things work out the way they hope, I think Obama’s problem—which I complained about during the primary season last year—is deeper than that. I think Obama wants to be seen as a nice guy who reaches out to his enemies and wins them over rather than kicking their tails. He’s willing to roll up his sleeves, but he doesn’t want to get his hands bloody.
In most circumstances, that’s a desirable trait for a politician. But there are times when a baseball bat, not a palm leaf, is required.
With the U.S. mired in its deepest economic slump since the Great Depression, this is one of those times.
Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.