Building The Obama Legacy – Part Two

by George Kennedy on January 12, 2013

Building The Obama Legacy – Part Two

During a recent interview, President Obama, when speaking of his legacy, said he just wants a smarter government and a set of results that he can claim as he leaves office in early 2017.  Fair enough but, what may put him in conflict with some Democrats and the majority of Republicans is how he attempts to achieve this goal.  Although lofty, achieving this goal is fraught with myriad political traps.  The first requirement is that you have a functional, interested partner.

The Republicans in Congress have formed a circular firing squad and fratricide appears to be a standing order.  So, how does Mr. Obama negotiate under these circumstances?

With regard to Mr. Obama, hunkering down in Washington trying to negotiate in good faith with Republican interlocutors at odds with each other and under primary threat for 2014, may produce less than marginal results.  Mr. Obama is being told that this approach is certainly a waste of time.

Mr. Obama might heed advice proffered by the venerable House Minority Leader to make headway on the big issues.  You know, the issues that are the stuff of legacies.

The House Minority Leader urged Mr. Obama to “aggressively line up much wider support for raising the federal debt limit and enacting new gun rules.”  Raising the federal debt limit and enacting new gun rules may be viewed as euphemisms for Mr. Obama’s larger legislative agenda, all of which is toxic to the Senate Minority Leader.  The Republicans will routinely accuse Mr. Obama of campaigning rather than remaining in Washington to “negotiate” should he reprise his formidable road show.  Mr. Obama likely will not persuade Republicans to compromise unless the tide of opinion shifts dramatically against them.  Even then, Republicans in safe seats likely will continue to ignore poll results and continue to obstruct while liquifying the ground under their hapless House Speaker.

Smart government, real immigration reform, revitalizing the economy, and electoral reform are big, hairy goals to pursue and, Mr. Obama will need to bring the voters to a place where they insist upon a balanced outcome to negotiations.  So how does he accomplish this?  Micah Sifry, in his article “Fix American Democracy” – Jan./Feb. 2013 Foreign Policy, reminds us of the President’s massive campaign organization that mobilized 2.2 million volunteers that made more than 150 million voter contacts.  Mr. Obama, at the moment, has the most “potent political organization” in the country and, as Micah points out, he has the opportunity to “frame the next congressional cycle around fixing Washington and use this potent force either to reward incumbents who support real change or to back challengers in the 2014 midterm elections.”  The inevitable blowback from the Republicans will be fierce but, with a limited 18-month window of opportunity to score big, there is no more effective strategy.

The House Minority Leader is right when she suggests “there has to be a national conversation.”  We have already endured four years of Republican intransigence, to include over 300 Senate filibusters.  The GOP is content to proceed as slowly as the most obdurate members of the House of Representatives and the United States Senate.  Chief obdurate is the Senate Minority Leader who makes no secret of his contempt for Mr. Obama.

It is obvious then that Mr. Obama cannot make his case in Washington.  He has to take his case to the voters.  The voters in the recent elections said they want results.  They voted for results and Mr. Obama would be derelict if he did not use every tool at his command to achieve results – even if he gets bruised in the process.

This was Mr. Obama’s last campaign so he has to leave everything “on the field.”  Negotiating with yourself to placate an implacable foe will only ensure less than satisfactory results including weakening your party in advance of the 2014 midterm elections.  Mr. Obama may not like political trench warfare but it is a right of passage for great presidents, the price you pay for a legacy.  If Lincoln were alive today, he might remind Mr. Obama that momentum is on his side; that he, too, has the possibility to heal a divided nation.  Moreover, he might also remind Mr. Obama that the times demand he lead – from the front.

Mr. Obama needs a theme that defines his administration in his second term; a theme that inspires the voters and defines who we are as a country.  Perhaps Mr. Obama’s second inaugural address on January 21st will render this a moot point.

Americans today want – and need – strong, determined and focussed presidential leadership.  There is no substitute for an authoritative voice that tells the country, “it’s O.K., I got this!”

If Mr. Obama is serious about being able to produce a record of results he can claim as his legacy, then he cannot stake out this goal, and, says Zbigniew Brzezinski, “commit himself eloquently to its attainment, and then yield the ground when confronted by firm opposition.”

This quality of character may be the prime determinant of the scope depth, and historical impact of Mr. Obama’s legacy.

It remains to be seen how committed Mr. Obama is to his success.

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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