School has started in Washington and across America: new shoes tied, bells ringing, and playground games going on—including bullying. These days, we're wise to watching out for bullying, and determined to put a stop to boys being boys—except when it comes to our own President Obama. Lately, he seems to be shadowed by an endless summer squall that trailed him up to Martha's Vineyard, proving as true as a theorem: one month is a long time in politics. As pencils and knives are sharpened all around, the new school year does not bode well for him.
The poor president is being bullied badly in plain sight by the House Republican gang, aided and abetted by the biggest baddest boy of all, Rush Limbaugh. As Congress convenes this week, you can already hear the whispers in the Capitol's hideaways, the chatter in its marble halls. The questions aren't about what's right for national policy, but all to do with the ado about the fight brewing. A plot afoot aims to rid us of a weakened young president after four years, that we know. Bullies are seldom subtle. [Vote now: Will Obama be a one-term president?]
But people, here's the kicker: the plot to devastate the president goes forward even if it drags the country down. The debt ceiling crisis illustrated Republican leaders stand ready to take the nation over the brink.
Questions on people's minds go like this. Why doesn't Barack push back after a major "diss" from House Speaker John Boehner (egged on by Rush) on scheduling a late-in-the-game speech on a jobs agenda? What words can the president summon to make job creation a reality instead of the thing that's always in front of him, never within reach? Why aren't his friends there for him? Never has the president—who first seemed too cool for a school called Congress—seemed so alone out in the rugged wilderness and playing fields of our roughest sport.
Obama can't fathom what's up with Boehner and his bullies in the House—they are not his cup of tea, so to speak. Can it be they leave the master wordsmith speechless? Truly, he's at a loss when they attack him so personally. It's not fair, Teacher, I work well with others—you can almost hear a boyish voice speak inside him. As a highbrow now, Obama prefers elegant company and sophisticated conversation to rowdy political "discoarse." Let's face it, he actually is an intellectual snob, covered with ivy, which doesn't go down well with bullies. Because he likes to float above the fray, he infuriates them further, since he seems a loner, neither fish nor fowl. [Read Leslie Marshall: Jobs Plan is Obama's Best Hope for Re-Election]
In retrospect, Obama did not know his audience when he became president in 2009, meaning political enemies close at hand in the fractious House. Coming from the liberal precincts of Chicago's Hyde Park and Cambridge, Mass., with a college education divided between New York and California, he had few friends from low places in the Southern, largely Republican states. Keeping a regal distance, the young president had no clue how bitter the partisan and sectional divide really is in the House. So he was caught flat-footed when the House turned red late in 2010 and things haven't been the same since.
Obama wasn't around here in 1994, when the whole civil war started with Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House, after a historic Republican takeover of both chambers. The Gingrich-led class of 1994, by the way, looks like kindergarten compared to this chandelier-smashing crowd of 87 GOP House freshmen. [See a slide show of Newt Gingrich's career]
As for that looming jobs speech, Obama has to find it within to name names—or at least speak of Republican Party efforts to thwart him at every turn. No longer can he glide past with generalities such as his favorite: "Some folks." Blaming "Washington" or "Congress" won't work because there are lots of fellow Democrats left, and they control the Senate. And he'd better go for broke, too, as a man with a plan worthy of the jobs crisis. It's the first major homegrown debacle with his name all over it.
My sense is the speech should be long on fighting spirit, like he showed in Detroit on Labor Day, clear on substance and specifics, and short on lofty words. What about a program for bringing inner city youths out to rural America to work on farms? What about a program to send starving writers and artists out to communities across America to collect folklore, songs and oral histories? A sequel of sorts to the New Deal program which fed the stomachs and souls of creative young people who later became important in their fields. Then there's always infrastructure, but to be comprehensive the man's plan has to reach beyond construction workers. Then stick it to 'em: Republicans are selling the American public something like a "New Steal." In other words, Mr. President, show whose side you're on and abandon all hope for friends standing on a middle ground. Demoralized Democrats need to feel some love and energy radiate from you, along with fresh determination, to rally to your side so you don't walk alone. [Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on the economy.]
As a new president, Obama never made true new friends in the big white schoolhouse down the road. He lost his best one in the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a seasoned elder who would have steered and saved him from this pretty pass. When Obama was a member of the Senate, he did not put in time absorbing its clubby nature. Busy on book tours and running for president, he flew through there fast without getting friendly mentoring from experienced lawmakers on both sides. So he never learned to read the wind and waves of the Senate, which Kennedy skillfully navigated, much less the rocky shoals of the People's House. He depended upon Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the former Democratic Speaker, to be the man of the House when it came to passing healthcare reform in the second spring of his presidency. Temperamentally, he is unusually aloof for a politician.
So it is altogether fitting that Obama faces the turning point of his fragile presidency under the roof of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. This is the den where bullies who seek to tear him down dwell. Whether they follow Boehner as their leader or whether he follows his unruly freshmen, that's up for debate. [Read Peter Roff: Obama Approval Rating Raises Stakes for Jobs Speech]
All that matters now is that the president follows his enemies home, knows where they live and looks them in the eye as he proposes a plan to get millions of Americans back to work.
This is Obama's Gettysburg, in the third year of his presidency, just as the battle that inspired Abraham Lincoln's speech happened midway through his Civil War presidency. Lincoln never confused a foe for a friend and always knew where the lines between blue and gray were drawn. Obama had better give the speech of his life in the same style as Lincoln: short and stark, with feeling and urgency, on the terrain of a great battle as the war is still raging.
- Read Susan Milligan: Squabble Over Timing of Obama's Jobs Speech Is Embarrassing
- Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.
- See a slide show of 10 things Obama can learn from Clinton.