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Seven Ways Obama Can Beat Washington

By Dan Froomkin
1:55 PM ET, 03/ 3/2009


Obama at a campaign rally at the University of Denver in January 2008. (Reuters)

If nearly the entire Washington power establishment is complicit in the problems President Obama is trying to solve (see yesterday's post), then he's going to have to adopt an outside-in strategy -- an insurgency of sorts -- to persuade Congress to join him in going full speed in the opposite direction.

What would such a strategy entail? Here are some possible approaches.

1. Get out of town -- a lot.

That was the first idea raised by commenters in response to yesterday's post. "Constwkr" wrote: "He needs to keep taking the message to the folks who voted for this kind of change...Washington won't listen to him, but they sure will listen to the voters."

Jpk1 wrote: "His best strategy for winning the inside game is to not play it. Instead, appeal to the public."

As Eli Saslow pointed out in The Washington Post on Sunday, in a story about Obama's attempts not to get caught in the White House bubble, the new president is already hitting the road a lot.

"As a U.S. senator, he complained that Washington sometimes felt 'status-conscious' and 'artificial,' and he promised voters during the presidential campaign that he planned to travel outside the capital for a regular dose of perspective," Saslow wrote. "During the past three weeks, as Obama aggressively tried to sell his economic recovery package, he traveled to Indiana, Florida, Illinois, Colorado, Arizona and Canada as well as Camp David -- more trips outside Washington in his first month than any of the previous five presidents."

But I'm not just talking about town-hall meetings in high-school auditoriums -- although those are valuable. I'm also talking football stadiums, civic centers and waterfronts, major rallies that serve to invigorate citizens and encourage them to make their voices heard in Congress -- and that provide the media, the public and elected officials with inescapable reminders that Obama isn't just a popular president, he's leading a movement.

2. Go populist. Campaign against the insurance industry, the banks, the oil, gas and coal companies. Especially the banks.

As early as late January, as he took on the enormous challenge of righting the country's financial system, there were signs that Obama might be abandoning at least some of the populism he expressed in his campaign and inauguration in an attempt not to upset Republicans and Wall Street.

As Stephen Labaton and Edmund L. Andrews wrote in the New York Times in early February, there are evidently tensions within the White House over how tough to get on the banks. At the time, Labaton and Andrews wrote that "in the battle over how to approach banks, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy F. Geithner had aparently 'largely prevailed' over more populist presidential aides."

Since then, Obama has gradually gotten more vocal about supporting the interests of ordinary people over those of the privileged elites. "The system we have now might work for the powerful and well-connected interests that have run Washington for far too long, but I don't," he said in his radio and Internet address on Saturday. "I work for the American people." He predicted resistance from his budget plans from, in particular, the insurance industry, banks, and oil and gas companies.

In his Congressional address last week, Obama argued on behalf of bailing out essentially bankrupt banks, but vowed: "This time, CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks, or buy fancy drapes, or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column that Obama's wishy-washy approach to banks is neither appealing to the public's anger -- nor solving the problem.

"The genuine populist rage in the country — aimed at greedy C.E.O.'s, not at the busted homeowners mocked as 'losers' by [CNBC's Rick] Santelli — cannot be ignored or finessed...

"Americans still don't understand why many Wall Street malefactors remain in place or why the administration's dithering banking policy lacks the boldness and clarity of Obama's rhetoric....

"Handing more public money to the reckless banks that invented this culture and stuck us with the wreckage is the new third rail of American politics."

3. Nationalize the banks, already.

Obama certainly isn't lacking in audacity -- except maybe in one area. For one reason or another, Obama is resisting what an increasing number of economists say may be the only real solution to the banking crisis: nationalization.

As columnist Paul Krugman blogs for the New York Times, the Obama team "seems committed to the view that banks should stay private even if they're bankrupt, because — well, just because....

"The sickening feeling of drift — the sense that policymakers are refusing to face hard facts, and are dithering while the world economy burns — just keeps getting stronger."

If Obama is trying to avoid nationalizing to prevent a sell-off on Wall Street, well, that ain't exactly working.

What Wall Street really wants, Obama acknowledged in his congressional address, is "an approach that gives bank bailouts with no strings attached and that holds nobody accountable for their reckless decisions."

But if he won't give them what they want, why not do what needs to be done?

4. Don't listen to the usual suspects so much.

As the Nation's Ari Melber writes in a Politico opinion column: "Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it is 'experienced' Beltway insiders who have actually caused the largest problems for Obama.

"When the new, young president stacked his administration with familiar Washington veterans, the predictable praise poured in. Washington Post columnist David Broder lauded Tom Daschle's appointment, hailing him as a 'shrewd choice' to head Obama's health care reform. 'The former South Dakota senator knows the politics of Capitol Hill intimately,' Broder wrote in December, apparently unaware that old school politics can hinder reform.

"We know how that turned out....

"[T]he point of hiring Washington insiders was the promise that pros would run Washington smoothly." But, Melber writes: "the non-Washington appointees seem to be Getting It Done without incident, from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to foreign policy adviser Samantha Power."

David Cho writes in The Washington Post that, on economic policy, Geithner and National Economic Council Chair Lawrence H. Summers are winning a lot of the economic arguments in the White House these days.

Maybe that's part of the problem.

5. Liken incrementalism to supporting the status quo.

As I noted in an item on Friday, the dominant media analyses of Obama's budget have cast it as a political gamble -- which it is, of course. But is that the biggest risk?

Inertia is a powerful force in Washington. Consider how, for so many years, establishment Washington called withdrawal from Iraq "risky" -- without acknowledging how risky it was to stay. The media reflects this inertia by tending to focus on the risk of doing something, not the risk of doing nothing.

The White House position, by contrast, is that doing too little is riskier than doing too much, considering the circumstances. But that view is getting lost in the chatter.

How to cut through the noise and make that point more effectively? I suggest publicly mocking those who want to respond to this crisis with baby steps. They can always be mollified later by having them over for cocktails. No one in the Washington establishment can resist the trappings of the presidency.

New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks this morning joins the chorus of incrementalists, writing ostensibly on behalf of his fellow "moderates" that Obama's budget proposal just goes way too far: "There is, entailed in it, a promiscuous unwillingness to set priorities and accept trade-offs. There is evidence of a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor — caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once."

Joe Klein responds appropriately in Time: "We are at the end of a 30-year period of radical conservatism, a period so right-wing that many of those now considered 'liberals'--like, say, Barack Obama--would be seen as moderate pantywaists in the great sweep of modern political history. The past 30 years have been such a violent departure from the norm, such a profound destruction of the basic functions of government, that a major rectification is called for now--in rebalancing the system of taxation toward progressivity, in rebuilding the infrastructure of the country, not just physically, but also socially and intellectually.

"So it's not surprising that the President would feel the need to move on all fronts, rather than prioritizing, as Brooks would want."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "There's a reason Obama's approval ratings remain so high. He senses that Americans yearn for greater fairness and accountability, especially after the excesses that threaten to wreck our economy and destroy so many dreams. He knows that American individualism is tempered by the need to feel community in the nation and the world.

"He also knows that windows of opportunity for fundamental change remain open just briefly before slamming shut. His declaration Saturday that 'I didn't come here to do the same thing we've been doing or to take small steps forward' may be the understatement of the year."

6. Run against the media. But also use it.

It's not just the political establishment Obama needs to worry about, it's also the media establishment. And it's not just that the media establishment aided and abetted the profound irresponsibility that Obama argues brought us to this "day of reckoning."

While individual members of the media might be quite taken with Obama, their smartest career move these days is to take a critical approach toward the White House to prove that they're not liberals. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, for instance, yesterday profiled Jake Tapper, the former Salon writer who is making a name for himself as ABC News White House correspondent.

How? By having "already clashed publicly with press secretary Robert Gibbs" and having "been outspoken in his view that many in the media have been too soft on Barack Obama." Kurtz writes: "'Certain networks, newspapers and magazines leaned on the scales a little bit,' [Tapper] says over a vanilla latte at Starbucks."

And the Washington press corps has an obsession with political minutiae -- who's up, who's down, who scored a point, who screwed up -- that inevitably distracts from the big issues that Obama is trying to focus on.

In a February 17 post, I wrote about Obama's interview with a group of opinion columnists, in which he said: "[W]hat I won't do is to engage in Washington tit-for-tat politics and spend a lot of time worrying about those games to the detriment of getting programs in place that are going to help people."

At the same time, if Obama makes himself much more accessible to the media, especially in long-form interviews, he can deliver his message and telegraph that he has nothing to hide.

And should the coverage turns out to be hostile or trivial, he can go directly to the people and use that coverage to help make his point that Washington and the media are out of touch with what's troubling the rest of the country.

7. Enlist the grassroots, especially on the Internet.

It looks like at some point Obama will have to call on the public to put pressure on Congress.

And, yes, as Jose Antonio Vargas writes in The Washington Post, Obama's much vaunted tech team "has been overwhelmed by challenges that staffers did not foresee and technological problems they have yet to solve." But those challenges can and must be overcome. And if Obama can interact with citizens directly online -- bypassing the media filter -- the results could be enormously effective.

Whether it's accepting comments on the White House Web site, answering online questions from voters, mobilizing his campaign e-mail list, or working with bloggers to launch pressure campaigns, Obama has opportunities to grow grass-roots movements like no president before him.

Got more ideas? Leave them in comments.

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