Memo to Obama:

Recommit to reform

By Howard Dean

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 r. President, after the “shellacking” (as you put it) that we received in November, your job in the State of the Union address is to restore faith in our country and in the Democratic Party. How do you do that?

My first piece of advice: Don’t panic. Focus outside Washington, and don’t listen to the talking heads who have little to no idea what is going on. Many Republicans themselves admit that the midterm results were not a signal of faith in Republican rule. Nor was it a “left vs. right” election, as so many inside-the-Beltway pundits tried to spin it. It was a repudiation of Washington—the kind of repudiation you campaigned on. While it’s true that the economy was the top issue for voters by a margin of 5 to 1 over health care, the weak job market was not Democrats’ only problem. The fact is that in 2006 and 2008 we promised change—and in many eyes we have not delivered enough of it.

Yes, your administration and the Democratic Congress have historic achievements under your belts, from stabilizing an economy in free fall to passing the health care bill. You should not be shy about reminding the American people of that. But the people who voted you into office—Democrats, Independents, Republicans—wanted something more. They wanted change in the way business is done in Washington. That we have not seen. 

The health care bill, for instance, hurt us at the polls more because of the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, and the deals with the insurance companies than because it lacked a public option. Your administration and congressional Democrats made Washington more transparent, another important achievement. But the transparency revealed the ugliness of the legislative process, which was not fundamentally different than it has ever been. Powerful interest groups got what they demanded in order to get the bill passed.

Which brings me to my second piece of advice: Remember that your supporters and many of those who voted against our party in November want essentially the same thing. The Tea Party may demand less government, but they aren’t actually eager to see Social Security and Medicare changed much, if at all. What they really want is exactly what the people who voted for me in 2004, for Democrats in 2006, and for you in 2008 wanted: their voices heard in the corridors of power in Washington.

It is not too late for you to reclaim your place as the Great Reformer. You got off to a good start by publicly criticizing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which gave wealthy individuals and large corporations carte blanche to pour unlimited amounts of money into campaign ads with no disclosure requirements. (Although the tiny, but rich, corporate wing of the Tea Party loved that ruling, most Tea Party voters don’t want corporations calling the shots any more than they want government doing so.) As a next step in cleaning up Washington, you should take aim at the dysfunction of the Senate by calling for reform of the filibuster, an end to anonymous holds, and a nonrenewable time limit on all holds. The State of the Union provides you with an ideal pulpit to call for these changes. And guess who gets the blame if the Senate balks?

My third piece of advice is to take the lead on deficit reduction. The deficit is both our country’s greatest threat and the GOP’s greatest vulnerability. Republicans are essentially asking that we cut taxes for people who are making a million dollars a year while demanding that seniors accept reduced Social Security and Medicare benefits to pay for it. They want to kick kids off health care while insisting we build more cluster bombs and other weapons systems that the Pentagon neither needs nor, in many cases, wants.

Let us hope they stick to these positions for the sake of our electoral fortunes in 2012. They probably won’t, though, because they know it will be political suicide. They may, however, be willing to make the kind of deal where everyone’s ox is gored. The perception of the American people over the last ten years is that Wall Street, defense contractors, health insurance companies, and corporate interests generally were well taken care of, while middle-class taxpayers got hammered again. The truth is that, going forward, everyone will have to accept some pain to end our financial woes. The only one who can make that case in the next two years, and make it stick, is you.

Wise and fair fiscal stewardship is an issue that unites and motivates both the Tea Party and progressives, and a huge number of voters in between. It also makes Congress, particularly Republicans, incredibly uncomfortable, since their allegiance is split between the Tea Party voters who elected them and the special interests, such as the Chamber of Commerce, who paid for their ads and to whom they have long been loyal.

What you most need to do, Mr. President, is show strength of purpose and toughness. 

Robert Obele, a handyman in Estes Park, Colorado, was recently interviewed by Kirk Johnson of the New York Times about what he wanted to see from Washington after the election. He said he would likely vote for President Obama again in 2012, but followed up with this piece of wisdom: “I think he’s been too wishy-washy. Somebody needs to slap him and say it’s time to shape up and get tough.” While I would strongly counsel against slapping the president of the United States, I would point out that Ronald Reagan survived his first midterm debacle by continuing to be steadfast in what he believed, optimistic about the country, and clear about what he expected both from Congress and the American people. The message was easy to understand and repeated thousands of times. I didn’t like a lot of President Reagan’s policies, but you had to admire his style.

Photo: Getty Images"

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Howard Dean is a former presidential candidate and was chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009 and governor of Vermont from 1991 to 2003.  
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