Only re-election can save Obama’s legacy

Obama’s signature reforms hang in the balance. To preserve them, re-election in 2012 is not merely an option: it is an obligation. If he wins re-election, he will gain the strongest possible ally in his quest to solidify his reforms, and thus his legacy: time.

With Republicans taking back the House of Representatives and Democrats in the Senate divided between liberals and nervous Blue Dogs, Barack Obama suddenly finds himself confronted with a hostile Congress. Republicans are going to focus on Obama with laser-like precision, if only to cover up the deep divisions among their own rank and file. They will not cast themselves as bipartisans. On the contrary, they will be beating the anti-Obama drums right up until the upcoming presidential election. Their idea of ‘seeking compromise’  is a full and unconditional surrender by the other side, meaning helping to roll back all reforms.

Fat chance.

And so the trenches are once again dug. As a result of the unavoibable War of Words that is about to ensue between the two houses, the GOP’s election platform for 2012 will consist of exactly three words: repeal, repeal, repeal!

But that’s not just campaign rhetoric. The GOP actually wants to repeal Obama’s reforms, not merely water them down. As president, Obama can and will veto any proposal to repeal his legislation. But in order for his reforms to become embedded in US society and embraced by voters as their positive effects kick in, he must hold on to that right of veto right up until 2016. At that point, rolling back the changes will be very difficult and likely very unpopular. Time is not on the GOP’s side.

That will make the battle for the White House more important than ever for Obama. Not only will he be fighting for his personal legacy, he will also be leading the Democratic troops in their campaign to preserve the reforms they’ve so long yearned for. Obama’s re-election bid will also be the Democrats’ battle to defend their core principles.

So Obama’s first order of business is to mend fences with an infuriated Democratic leadership. Obama’s quest to enact reforms and his demand that Democratic lawmakers support them has cost them dearly. The trade-off Obama brought to the table was simple: if they voted for his proposals, he would throw his full weight behind them during their election campaigns. Unfortunately that didn’t work out too well for many of them. The already endangered Blue Dog Democrats saw the environment in their predominantly Republican states turn toxic fast. Most were ousted; the GOP took back most of the states in the Midwest and the South they had lost in 2006.

Second, Obama must prove once again that he can win elections. This may come across as a bizarre observation. After all, we are talking about a black man who won the presidency with a wide margin. How can one doubt Obama’s skills as a campaigner? Yet Democrats are shocked at how the White House fumbled the mid-term elections campaign.

During mid-term campaigns the White House acts as a bullhorn, basically laying out the grand strategy and aiding in determining the national talking points, all crafted in one, all-encompassing central message. That was sorely missing, as was the progenitor of the reforms himself. Only in the last two months did Obama go out stumping for the reforms he had delivered. Too little, too late. By waiting too long, he lost touch with his base. At the same time, the Republicans were left room to frame the national debates about health care, the economy and the deficit.

So Obama has three pretty tough fights, and one very serious round of praying looming. First he must deal with an angry party and convince them to follow his lead again. Perhaps there’s a high profile special election – a Senator, a Governor – he can stump for. (And it better be one with a decent chance of winning.) Then he must rally his voter base, especially younger voters and independents who voted for him in mass numbers last time. Third, he must confront the GOP – starting now.

Those are the fights. The prayers are of course private, but if Obama is smart, there’s no doubt that they will be about the economy.

(Image: Creative Commons)

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