Unless you've been living on Mars, you know that the president is in a tough spot these days: His job approval ratings have bottomed out, and a stunning 7 in 10 Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Too many people have lost faith in the government. A majority now consider it to be a threat, and massive distrust of government is bad for a democracy. The administration needs to get things moving back in the right direction again – and fast.
To me, the White House faces three big challenges, each of which can be fixed.
The first challenge is a complete lack of focus on the toughest threat we face: stubborn unemployment and sluggish economic growth. When was the last time you heard the president say anything about creating jobs? In Washington-speak, the president needs to "pivot back" to job creation and away from all the distractions.
For starters, there's an infrastructure bill to fix ports and waterways that's already passed both the House and the Senate, and the president should sign it – and make a big deal about it. Then he should call for a broader infrastructure bill for bridges and roads. Every state in the union could use construction jobs, and with congressional earmarks a thing of the past, members of Congress are looking for ways to bring home jobs, even temporary ones. A reasonable infrastructure bill has a better chance of getting bipartisan support right now than immigration reform does. And he should consider putting the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission back on the table. The president may not like all of the commission's suggestions, but working toward a sound fiscal plan would send a great message to the markets. Right now, the administration has no long-term plan – other than lurching to the next debt limit fight in the new year – for debt reduction and entitlement reform. Hope is not a strategy.
Second, the administration needs to rebuild its credibility with voters and the press. Simply put, no one believes the White House anymore. The apology for promising "If you like your plan, you can keep your plan," when that clearly wasn't true, was a good start. But there have been far too many times when the official response has been, "The president wasn't aware of that ..."
It's just not credible anymore that the president doesn't know what his government is doing. In fact, it's eroding confidence in our chief executive's competence. We have a right to expect competence in our leaders.
I've thought for a long time that White House press secretary Jay Carney needs to go – and the president would be better served by bringing in an experienced Washington veteran to set a new tone. There are several Democratic former White House press secretaries who come to mind, all of whom are well-respected by the press corps: former Clinton press secretaries Mike McCurry, Joe Lockhart and Dee Dee Myers, for example. If Obama could talk any of them into it, then he could bring some believability to the job again. The status quo is hurting his own stature as president.
And third, there's a widespread feeling that the president's operating style has a lot to do with why no one in Washington will speak to each other. For example, the White House recently postponed the annual congressional barbecue, usually held every summer for members of Congress on the South Lawn. It was originally scheduled for June, then moved to September, and then, according to Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair, cancelled altogether in a terse 53-word email from the White House.
As I write this, I'm traveling the country interviewing dozens of people for a documentary about my old boss, President George H.W. Bush, and I've learned that not reaching out to people was something he simply never did. One of his first acts as president – long forgotten now – was to make his way across town to the Senate office of Majority Leader Harry Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, to pay his respects. No particular reason, no arm twisting on some bill, just a handshake to start things off. That was after he said, "This is the age of the offered hand," in his inaugural address. Hard to imagine these days. It's no accident that Bush passed a long list of bills with bipartisan support, despite Democratic control of both the House and Senate during his four years.