scot lehigh

To succeed, Obama must take his case to the people

President Obama tried to galvanize the country to progressive purpose in his inaugural speech, arguing that in this era, advancing time-honored individual aspirations requires collective action.

As attempts to square the ideological circle go, this was a rhetorical triumph. Yet if Obama is to realize his goals, he will have to rally the country on a continual basis.

A reasonable man, Obama craves a return to a time when agreeable people were able to work out sensible compromises.


That, however, doesn’t describe this period in American politics.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Mind you, House Speaker John Boehner has some of the same adult inclinations. He clearly would like to accomplish big, serious things — if he weren’t riding a Tea Party tiger and glancing anxiously over his shoulder at the ideological young guns who are eager to replace him. But he is — so Boehner won’t argue forcefully for the middle road he might pursue if left to his own devices.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, has simply not demonstrated that he cares about serious governance. For him, sadly, gamesmanship seems to be the entire game. The overriding purpose he has brought to his high public post has been to foil the president.

So where does that leave Obama as he confronts large and controversial issues like climate change, gun control, and immigration reform, to name just three? The best prescription comes from the (late) scholar Richard Neustadt, an adviser to several presidents.

“Effective influence for the man in the White House,” Neustadt wrote in his influential examination of presidential power, “stems from three related sources: first are the bargaining advantages inherent in his job with which to persuade other men that what he wants of them is what their own responsibilities require them to do. Second are the expectations of those other men regarding his ability and will to use the various advantages they think he has. Third are those men’s estimates of how his public views him and of how their publics may view them if they do what he wants.”


Given today’s politics, the third source of power will prove particularly important to Obama’s success. But that will mean going outside the capital and waging a campaign for what he wants done inside the Capitol. Although that’s not necessarily the way he’d prefer to govern, Obama does it well. After all, in a year when a number of economic models predicted he’d lose, Obama argued his way to a handy victory over Republican Mitt Romney.

In the last four years, Republicans were often able to indulge their obstructionist instincts because of these intertwined realities: Many issues never rise to the level of widespread public awareness, while others that do are sometimes difficult to elucidate to the country.

The first explains why Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, a small-minded Senate baron, was able to deny Nobel Prize-winning economist Peter Diamond a spot on the Federal Reserve Board.

The debt ceiling controversy stands as a prime example of the second. Many people don’t understand that lifting the debt limit is an essentially redundant vote to authorize borrowing for spending Congress has previously approved. In 2011, Obama let Republicans use the debt-ceiling vote to lure him into a protracted debate over deficit-reduction.

This time around, however, the president declared he wouldn’t bow to brinksmanship. Likening a GOP threat not to raise the ceiling without offsetting spending cuts to going out to dinner and then running out on the check, Obama made it clear that if the United States defaulted on its obligations, he would make the GOP wear the blame for the economic consequences.


Lo and behold, Congressional Republicans have now backed off that threat, saying they will support raising the debt ceiling for four months, while using other tools to push for spending cuts.

If Obama wants to realize his goals, he will have to rally the country on a continual basis.

The central GOP complaint about Obama’s inaugural oratory was that it was a campaign-style speech. There’s some truth to that, but the criticism is more interesting for what it reveals about the critics. Republicans were objecting to what they fear: Obama’s ability to appeal to the public.

That’s instructive. As he starts his second term, Obama must keep uppermost in mind that the best way to win in Washington is make his opponents fear the consequences of thwarting him.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.