Following the passage of the unpopular debt-ceiling bill and a barrage of awful economic numbers, the Standard & Poor's downgrade of America's credit rating capped the worst week of Barack Obama's presidency.
Every president faces bad news. Not every one becomes smaller and weaker as he does. Character makes itself known in moments of hardship.
Americans respect presidents who are strong leaders, decisive and credible. In recent months, Mr. Obama hasn't shown strength.
Some of this comes from his compulsive need to blame others. For example, in response to the unprecedented downgrading, his administration lashed out at Standard & Poor's and the tea party movement. Implying—as he did in remarks to veterans at the Washington Navy Yard last week—that the economy's poor performance was related to the Arab Spring and the Japanese tsunami made him look foolish.
Then there was the president's Monday speech that, rather than calming fears, stirred them up. The stock market declined as he spoke.
What might he have done instead? First, he should have spoken over the weekend, so his words could sink in before markets opened. But after deciding to remain silent until Monday, he should have waited until U.S. markets closed. And instead of another robotic teleprompter speech, he might have brought in the press at the end of a lengthy meeting with business leaders for informal comments.
There, surrounded by Warren Buffett and other business allies, Mr. Obama could have signaled, without having to say so explicitly, that he had learned from his policies' shortcomings. After HillaryCare failed and the GOP took control of the House in November 1994, President Bill Clinton made clear he was pivoting to the center: no abject apology, but it worked.
Mr. Obama could have acknowledged the urgent need for more fiscal discipline and outlined how to get to the $4 trillion in deficit reduction required to put the debt on a downward path. And he could have brought up reforming entitlements, whose skyrocketing costs are increasingly the source of America's fiscal problems.
He might have started with proposals many Democrats as well as Republicans support. These include raising the age at which people are eligible for Medicare, modestly increasing deductibles and co-pays for wealthier seniors, and changing how benefit increases are calculated for inflation. Indeed, these were all proposals the Obama administration favored at one time or another.
Rather than holding out for a "grand bargain" on entitlements, Mr. Obama could have proposed passing reforms one or two at a time, building confidence inside Congress for even more difficult actions. As his own outgoing Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Austan Goolsbee said Sunday, "Can't we wait on the things that we're going to yell at each other about and start on the things that we agree on?"
The president could have pledged to reform the tax code to produce more robust growth that will create jobs and raise more revenue without hiking rates. Everyone knows Mr. Obama wants higher tax rates. Everyone knows the Republican House won't pass them. So why not focus on what is possible?
Off-camera, Mr. Obama could have taken two other important steps. First, stop teeing off on congressional Republicans whose help he needs to accomplish anything this year. And second, attend far fewer fundraisers until Congress goes out in December. He must rescue his presidency by spending more time on his job, not his politics. These steps, however, are probably beyond the president. This West Wing is almost completely focused on the president's re-election, not on policy.
Because they cannot defend his record, Team Obama will attempt to "kill" their political opponents, as one Democratic strategist told Politico.com this week. These are difficult days for our president. Buffeted by events, he looks weak, dazed and over his head. And in 15 months, unless he finds some way to turn things around, he will be voted out of office.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, August 10, 2011.