The time for Obama to lead is now

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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Barack Obama’s odds of being re-elected are better today than any Republican could have possibly imagined six months ago. Recent polling shows he is ahead of all the Republican candidates in the pivotal swing state of Ohio, and he leads or is in a dead heat in the national polls against every Republican candidate, including Mitt Romney — this despite his low grades on handling the economy and the 9 percent unemployment rate.

Yet Obama still has one major stylistic liability that threatens his re-election: the perception of passive or belated leadership, or both.

Now, with only a few days left before the deadline for the supercommittee to report its recommendations for $1.2 trillion of deficit reductions, it is time for President Obama to lead in breaking the stalemate — specifically, to suggest he can support the latest Republican proposal by supercommittee members, i.e., to raise $300 million by closing tax loopholes.

Obama made two calls last Friday to the co-chairmen of the supercommittee, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), to urge a bipartisan agreement and warn that he would block any effort to prevent the $1.2 trillion of automatic cuts. That was a good first step — but not nearly enough.

The president needs to go further and convince committee Democrats to respond positively to the Republican proposal and begin final negotiations. He was given important political cover to do this when his home-state senator, Dick Durbin, the No. 2 leader in the Democratic Conference, immediately praised the Republican proposal for supporting revenue increases for the first time.

Of course, Obama and most Democrats disagree with the Republican committee members’ proposal to reduce the top income tax bracket to 28 percent or to retain all the Bush tax cuts without adjustments for super-upper-income brackets. With the national debt at $14 trillion and heading toward $15 trillion, this seems the wrong time for a substantial reduction in taxes. But with President Obama stepping into a leadership role, he should be able to obtain a deal keeping current tax brackets in return for additional spending cuts and entitlement and Social Security reforms along the lines proposed by the Bowles-Simpson Commission.

Speaking of Bowles-Simpson, as I’ve written in this space, Obama missed an opportunity to show strong presidential leadership on the national debt by endorsing his own deficit commission’s report last January during his nationally televised State of the Union address. I suggested that Bowles and Simpson themselves be placed in the House gallery and, during his speech, Obama ask each of them to stand. Then he should have challenged every member of the House and Senate on the floor to stand up to declare their support for Bowles-Simpson’s across-the-board approach to substantial deficit reduction.

I fear Obama’s decision to go to Hawaii for an Asian economic summit meeting during the crucial last week before the supercommittee’s November 20 deadline will strengthen the perception of weak and belated presidential leadership.

Most Americans are more fed up with the dysfunctional partisanship and paralysis in the legislature, with Congress having a 9 percent approval rating. But if the supercommittee fails to report out a recommendation or Congress fails to approve it, resulting in draconian $600 million cuts in defense and domestic programs, respectively, then the American people will blame not only the Congress but President Obama as well. And once again Obama’s serious political liability — the perception of weak and belated leadership — would be made far worse.

So, Mr. President, this is your opportunity — one that you and the country cannot afford to miss: Lead your party to essentially accept the Republican proposal and lead the final negotiation to reach a bipartisan deal on $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.

You might anger some among your purist base. But you will strengthen your position among independents and moderates — the voters who will decide the election and who want, along with many other voters, a federal government that breaks the partisan gridlock and gets back into the solutions business.

Lanny Davis is the principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in strategic crisis management. He served as President Clinton’s Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). He can be found on Facebook and Twitter (@LannyDavis).