In what the White House billed as major speeches to restart the debate on economic policy, President Obama traveled Tuesday to two small colleges in Missouri and Illinois, appearances that were part campaign rally, part State of the Union wonkism. Unfortunately, they were not a restart.
Expectations rose after the president's re-election in November that congressional Republicans, no longer having the goal of blocking an Obama second term, would end their policy intransigence. But if there was ever a political opening, it closed quickly.
Missteps and happenstance diverted the president from addressing the top priority for most Americans - moving the economy from slow growth to genuine recovery. There was the concerted but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to pass federal gun control legislation. And there were scandalous revelations - an overzealous Justice Department seizing the phone records of AP reporters; disclosure of a massive NSA monitoring program of cell and Internet communications; a damaging Inspector General report on the IRS targeting certain conservative groups for special attention.
A White House that hoped to seize the offensive after the president's political victory has instead been on the defensive. Emboldened by the president's repeated stumbles, and with an eye already turning toward gaining House and Senate seats in 2014, GOP leaders were in no mood to toss him any policy victory lifelines.
President Obama must find a way to change the discussion. He must deal with the political realities as they are. He needs to come up with proposals that would be difficult for Republican lawmakers to dismiss and demand in return compromise on some of his policy priorities.
Tax reform would offer one such possibility, with the president entertaining lower rates in return for tax code simplification and a reduction in loopholes, particularly those catering to the upper income brackets. President Obama could leverage support in the corporate community to apply pressure on Republicans to fund education reform, broaden worker training and upgrade the nation's infrastructure. Environmental regulatory reform could be offered in return for support of green energy initiatives.
In his Tuesday speeches President Obama rehashed many of the same themes he has repeated for years, still unable to turn them into an effective economic program. Absent was any suggestion of a new strategy to push that agenda or of any change in the agenda. The president, it seems, thinks he can rally public support and force Congress into action, despite repeated examples that it won't work.
"What's it going to accomplish? It's a hollow shell. It's an Easter egg with no candy in it," mocked Republican House Speaker John Boehner, dismissing the speeches before the president got off the plane to deliver them.
Historically, second-term presidents have had the greatest policy success during the first two years of their second go around. After that attention turns to the election of a next president. President Obama faces the danger of seeing his opportunity pass with little to show for it. With the possible exception, but hardly the certainty, of a major immigration bill, there appears to be no big policy victories on the horizon.
Conservative critics may take glee in the president's struggles, and Republican powerbrokers see political gains resulting from them. But inaction is not good for the country, not good for the millions who still want to find work and the many others who seek advancement.
Adding to the degree of difficulty are growing indications of unrest to President Obama's political left. Progressive Democratic lawmakers, convinced that Republican conservatives have no interest in moderate compromise, are questioning whether a return to strong progressive policies can win, if not legislative victories, at least support from the working-class. Their calls include restoring Glass-Steagall, significantly boosting the minimum wage, and abandoning any thought of changing Social Security and Medicare.
President Obama needs to figure out a way to establish a strong leadership role, or he may find himself a bystander, a lame duck watching two increasingly partisan parties position their battle lines for the next election, while accomplishing little of substance.