When the Democrats got thrashed (my word) in the midterm elections two weeks ago, there was much speculation about how Obama would react. Now we know that he has responded mostly with defiance — choosing to challenge the Republicans by threatening to issue significant executive orders regarding immigration. But it’s early days, and he may yet modulate his tone and seek compromises. If I were asked for a presidential to-do list, laying out an agenda for his final two years in office, here is what I would suggest:
- Change the Tone. Americans are tired of the rancor and vitriol coming out of Washington. The President, more than anyone else in the country, sets the tone for political discourse. Give it a rest, Mr. President. Take a page out of the book of Indra Nooyi, the highly respected CEO of PepsiCo. She says the most important lesson she has learned in life and business is something her father taught her: when dealing with other people, assume good intent. It’s amazing how effective you can be with others if you treat them with respect and consideration. The country will respect your maturity and may even follow suit!
- Change Some Key Personnel. It’s time for some fresh blood in the West Wing and, perhaps, for a different approach to staffing. Obama tends to pick aides who are loyal to him and resemble him in age and temperament. As a result, there’s a lack of deal-making savvy and gravitas in the Obama staff. Many have suggested that Obama follow the lead shown by Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush when they got into trouble in their last couple of years in the White House: make some high-level changes and bring in some serious pros. Reagan brought in former Senator Howard Baker to be his Chief of Staff when Iran Contra was engulfing his administration and Bill Clinton brought in former Congressman (and later Obama Defense Secretary) Leon Penetta when he was fighting impeachment. Bush, of course, replaced Donald Rumsfeld with Bob Gates as Defense Secretary when the Iraq War was at a critical stage. Obama needs to make two changes: Denis McDonough has to go as Chief of Staff and Susan Rice needs to step down as National Security Advisor. Bring in a Washington heavyweight at Chief of Staff (Tom Daschle?) and a respected strategist at National Security Advisor (Richard Haas?). Domestic and Foreign Policy strategy and implementation will improve.
- Immigration. It may already be too late on this one, as Obama has thrown down the gauntlet. Too bad, because the Republicans are willing to compromise on immigration policy — they need Hispanic votes, too! Obama can get most of what he wants as long as he backs off the demand that illegals be given a “path to citizenship.” Illegals can be permanent residents, but not citizens — unless they follow the same rules as everyone else. If we could wind back the clock, we would recommend that Obama work on a bill with Congress and then work it through the system the old fashioned way.
- Jobs and the Economy. The nation’s infrastructure has become pretty shabby. Work with Congress on an Infrastructure Renewal Bill (build highways, bridges, airports, etc.). Pair this measure with a reduction in the corporate tax rate, territorial taxes on foreign earnings (allowing over $1 trillion of corporate cash to come home) and a green light for the Keystone-xl pipeline — all things the Republicans want. This is known as compromise — try it Mr. President, you’ll like it. You’ll want to add funds for renewable energy (wind, solar, electric cars), but this is a nice to have, not a must have. Go for what can get done.
- Health Care. Accept that there just isn’t much room for compromise on Obamacare. If the Supreme Court finds against you in King vs. Burwell (the challenge to subsidies in states that use the federal exchange), you’ll have to cuts some deals with Congress. Otherwise, you can just hang tight. If the Republicans want change to Obamacare, they’ll have to elect a President…and everyone knows this.
- Foreign Policy. As mentioned above, get a new National Security Advisor in place and take a fresh look at the Middle East, Ukraine, etc. The Obama foreign policy has come to look a little ragged and doesn’t seem to be respected much by our friends or our enemies. Here are a few thoughts: 1) approach Putin with carrots as well as sticks and work with him where we can; 2) keep us out of wars in the Middle East (we’re not any good at building proxy armies); 3) keep the pressure on Iran to prevent its development of nuclear weapons; 4) find a way to work with, not fight with China; and 5) support Israel, stop trying to pressure her — Israel is our best friend in the world’s most dangerous region.
All of the above is hard to implement and especially hard for President Obama, who generally views his Republican adversaries with contempt. There are elements that tie these measures together — the President needs to start showing a little humility, get some better help in the West Wing and play better with others. Try the Indra Nooyi method, Mr. President: assume good intent. And maybe the Presidency won’t be such a drag for you. You might get a few things done and start enjoying yourself again.