Good advice

In his weekly address this morning, President Obama continued to press a case that apparently makes some folks in the political establishment nervous.

For example, the president referenced the latest data showing “the middle class has lost ground while the wealthiest few have become even wealthier” over the last three decades, and he called for “rebuilding an economy where everyone has the chance to succeed.” How? By passing measures like the president’s jobs agenda and paying for it by asking millionaires and billionaires “to contribute a little more in taxes.”

Instead of just blaming “some in Washington,” Obama was more direct: “Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress aren’t paying attention. They’re not getting the message.”

While polls show most Americans agree with the president’s message, plenty of establishment types are advising Obama to change direction. David Brooks, for example, believes the president would be better off focusing on deficit reduction and appealing to independents, partly by abandoning plans to boost job creation through government action. The American mainstream, the argument goes, is turned off by economic populism.

Brookings’ Thomas Mann and AEI’s Norm Ornstein this week offered the White House far more sensible advice.

[T]he ideological imbalance in American politics today has nothing to do with Obama abandoning his post-partisan promises and picking up the mantle of big government. Instead, it’s almost entirely a consequence of the rightward shift of the Republican Party. […]

Maneuvering tirelessly to stake out some elusive political center, in other words, won’t help Obama win over swing voters. It’ll just set him up for another year of looking weak and ineffectual…. It was perfectly understandable for Obama to try to deliver on his promise of a post-partisan Washington, even if he was naive at best, disingenuous at worst. But by doing so he paid a tremendous political price, among his supporters, but also with swing voters, who were not much taken with his effort to work with Republicans to stave off a totally unnecessary threat of default — and who viewed him as weak when the process looked so dysfunctional in the end that the U.S got downgraded by Standard and Poor’s. […]

Moreover, if there is any hope of achieving bipartisan policy success, it will come from Republicans believing that blocking the president’s initiatives or offers will cause them political harm. Mitch McConnell admitted as much when he acceded to a deal on the debt limit—not because it would avert economic chaos, not because a conciliatory president offered it to him, but because, in his own words, the failure to do so would damage “the Republican brand.” In other words, Obama’s new approach of turning up the heat — by calling out Republicans for their obstruction and their opposition even to ideas they have previously embraced, like a continuing payroll tax cut — actually has more chance of achieving the policy outcomes Brooks wants than his conciliatory approach.

Obama, at the center of today’s political spectrum, should therefore be explicit and forceful in communicating the stark differences between the parties and the source of inaction and gridlock in Washington. To do anything less would be a disservice to the public, his party, and his hopes for a constructive and consequential presidency.

I’m not sure why this perspective isn’t obvious to mainstream pundits, but perhaps the reminder from Mann and Ornstein will help set them straight.

Let’s also note the larger context here: Mann and Ornstein are, by most measures, about as centrist establishment as the centrist establishment gets. And even they are pushing President Obama to ignore Brooks’ advice, pursue economic populism, and highlight the differences between the parties.

Here’s hoping the Mann/Ornstein piece did not go unnoticed at the White House.