Anticipating Tough Midterm Elections, Obama Mounts Bully Pulpit
by Jules Witcover
Months ahead of the 2014 midterm congressional elections that could make or break the final push for President Obama's legacy, he is revving up a broader outreach effort in the hope of reviving the support and spirit that brought him two terms in the Oval Office.
He says he will make greater use of executive-branch initiatives to achieve aspects of his original agenda for change that have encountered legislative roadblocks over his first three years in the White House. He is launching a series of conversations with educators, private-sector leaders and outside nonprofit groups that has the look of an end-run around the recalcitrant Congress on projects achievable through the unique powers of the executive.
As reported in the Washington Post, Obama told his cabinet members earlier this week: "I've got a phone that allows me to convene Americans from every walk of life -- nonprofits, businesses, the private sector, universities -- to try to bring more and more Americans together around what I think is a unifying theme: making sure that this is a country where if you work hard, you can make it."
That notion is a familiar echo of predecessor Bill Clinton's standard rallying cry to Americans "who work hard and play by the rules" to claim their rightful share of the nation's opportunities. It is also an acknowledgment that in Obama's own political depression, marked by a too-slow economic recovery and the stumbling launch of Obamacare, he needs to jump-start a sense of movement on an uncertain national purpose.
The White House bully pulpit, popularized by Teddy Roosevelt as a means to cajole the public to civic action, has been mounted by presidents most often on the campaign trail in election seasons. Obama can't delay taking a more aggressive course now for the practical reason that he needs a more persuasive message that can change the composition of Congress next November. If not, he is likely to wallow in the same obstructionism that has haunted him since his first days in office.
But firing up the public in advance of off-year elections is no easy task, in the absence of a heavily reported and advertised presidential contest. Public interest naturally turns to personal matters and a sharp falloff in voters trooping to the polls. It's a hard sell for Obama simply to appeal to his faithful to show up to vote out the rascals who have been plaguing him, especially in traditionally Republican congressional districts where low turnout is usually beneficial to the incumbent candidate.
The Grand Old Party is already geared up to make the midterms an occasion for protest against Obama and his health-care insurance law, which may bring out a horde of usual non-voters to voice their wrath. The chances of the Democrats picking up the 18 House seats they need to wrest control are already low, along with the prospect they could lose six seats and their majority in the Senate, with more Democratic seats at stake there than Republican.
In all, the president who 14 months ago was comfortably re-elected is now obliged to saddle up again, turning increasingly to his executive options to fire up his own political base and battle for his share of a growing independent core of voters.
Because much of his original agenda has been sidelined by the long slog to restart the nation's economy, he is a lame duck with little time left to reintroduce new objectives and generate public support for them. Unless Obama can convince voters between now and November to give him a Congress that will work with him, or at least compromise with him, he may be headed for a very long and frustrating final two years of a presidency born of historic significance and ending in disappointment.
For this reason alone, he must work for and hope that Obamacare comes out of its present difficulties and reaches its ambitious aspirations by January 2017 -- and takes its place along with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as the great cornerstones of the American social safety net, among the nation's most admirable domestic achievements.
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