The to-do list

How Barack Obama can salvage his second term as president

Written by New York Times | Published: November 12, 2013 10:41:18 pm

How Barack Obama can salvage his second term as president

President Obama is under water. His approval in the polls is low and sinking,his signature initiative is staggering from a combination of incompetence and sabotage,his foreign policy is a jumble. Congress is a Bermuda Triangle where the most elementary White House business disappears. The public is numbed and disgusted. Allies are theatrically furious about eavesdropping. Put it this way: When the water-cooler buzz in Washington is focused on Obama’s near-death experience in last year’s campaign debates,it’s pretty clear he is not setting the agenda.

I have a few suggestions for how Obama might lift his presidency up from the bottom. The to-do list that follows consists of ideas that are worth doing on the merits and advantageous on the politics. Most of them are familiar,because this is a time to revive the best features of a stalled presidency,not to launch grand new initiatives.

The first job is obvious,not least to the president. The bu-ngling of the healthcare rollout was a humiliation for an administration whose campaign wizards famously tamed the social network in 2012. It has gi-ven Republicans licence to feign indignation even as they do their best to undermine the new programme. I have no doubt that the administration will get the system working and that the programme will ultimately prove popular. But the longer it takes,the more the president squanders the already meagre public confidence that he can do anything right. If after a few more weeks the assembled experts are still struggling to make the website work,maybe it’s time to redeploy some techies from the NSA.

Which brings me to… fire James Clapper. Dismissing Clapper,the director of national intelligence,is not a new idea. Better late than never. Obama should fire him not just because he lied,but also because Clapper has cast himself as the defender of the status quo,the apologist for excess. The president should draft someone widely viewed as tough-minded,clear-thinking and credible. With a change of leadership should come systemic reform to make the spy agencies more accountable.

Comprehensive immigration reform is both the right thing to do and a winning issue politically. A good,bipartisan bill has passed the Senate,with enhanced border security,a more sensible legal immigration regimen,safeguards against employers who cheat and legalisation for many of the 11 million who live in the shadows. This sensible reform is trapped in the House by the crossfire within the Republican party between those who would like to put out a welcome mat for Hispanic voters and those,including the former profile in courage Marco Rubio,who are cowed by the wrath of their base. Even if the chances of success are small,the more the White House presses the issue,the more it isolates the ideologues from the pragmatists,and the more it separates the right wing from business donors.

President Obama,of course,will not be on the ballot a year from now,but the midterm elections will be treated as a verdict on the state of America under his leadership,and the outcome will have a lot to do with how he spends his final years in office. He should miss no opportunity to portray the 2014 elections not as 435 House contests and 33 Senate races,but as a national referendum on our government dysfunction. It’s worth trying. However low the president’s ratings sink,Congress’s are bound to be lower.

BILL KELLER

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