What should President Obama do to win reelection? Everyone seems to agree about what he will do, in part because he is already doing it. He will largely give up actually trying to make policy and instead focus solely on the campaign. His every proposal will be designed with the campaign in mind. He will raise tens of millions and then, when a Republican opponent emerges, probably early next year, he will wage a bitterly negative campaign.
I am pretty sure that is what will happen because most of it is already happening. It is pretty much what the political playbook recommends, given the dreadful list of his liabilities.
David Brooks thinks this is a doomed strategy. Democrats are the party of trust in government. Republicans are the party of distrust in government. Right now, trust in government among the American electorate is in the toilet. If the election comes down to a choice between the Republican and Democratic positions, Obama loses. What he should do is return to the strategy he won on in the first place.
Obama would be wiser to champion a Grand Bargain strategy. Use the Congressional deficit supercommittee to embrace the sort of new social contract we've been circling around for the past few years: simpler taxes, reformed entitlements, more money for human capital, growth and innovation.
Don't just whisper Grand Bargain in back rooms with John Boehner. Make it explicit. Take it to the country. Lower the ideological atmosphere and get everybody thinking concretely about the real choices facing the nation.
Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein think this is terrible advice. Yes, voters may say they are more conservative now, but they don't really mean it. They are just depressed about the economy. Obama should use all his power and money to paint the Republicans as obstructionists. We could fix the economy, if only the Republicans weren't blocking us.
Both Brooks and Mann/Ornstein think that the election will be won by the candidate who employs the right labels. If Obama can affix the "unifier and conciliator" label to his own forehead (Brooks) or if he can affix the obstructionist label to the opposition (Mann/Ornstein), then he can win.
This is all wrong. After three years in office, voters have figured this guy out. No change of labels will help. The Republican brand is, if anything, less popular than the Obama brand, but that didn't stop the Republicans from sweeping the last election down to the level of dog catcher.
What voters will be looking for next year is someone, anyone, who can steer the damn ship of state. A loss of confidence in Obama's navigation is his real problem. He may well in by painting his opponent as an even less promising captain, but if he does he will set the stage for a very dismal second term.
If Obama wants a bold strategy, I have one to offer. He should suspend campaigning altogether and promise not to resume it until after the national conventions. He should go back to Washington and spend all his time trying to hammer out a real budget proposal. He should be constantly meeting with Republican leaders. He should frankly acknowledge the problems facing America's great social programs and put forth real proposals with real numbers for dealing with them.
Instead of trying to deny the gun-running scandal, he should publicly acknowledge it and very visibly call his Justice Department to account. Instead of denying the obvious mess that his green jobs program has been or the boondoggle that his health care policy is turning out to be, he should act if he was the first person to notice the problems and is now energetically addressing them.
The point of all this would not be to convince the voters that he is the great conciliator or that the Republicans are all orcs. The point would be to convince voters that he is interested in doing his job. Then voters would have to wonder if the Republican to be named later would really be any better at it.
Of course, all this presumes that Obama is really interested in and capable of doing his job, or at least of appearing to be so. It would also presume real courage. For both reasons, the President is not likely to be inspired by my advice.