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Obama needs to start governing

Opinion Column

President Obama keeps traveling the country to promote the highlights of his legislative agenda — tighter controls on weapons, clearer pathways for illegal immigrants, higher taxes on the wealthy. And Republicans keep getting more frustrated.

“This is not time for a road-show president,” fulminated Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican whip. Added Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, “I think he’s trying to scare the American people.”

They’re so upset because Obama’s strategy is so effective. When USA Today asked voters whom they would blame for the “sequester,” $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that are about to start biting, 49 percent said congressional Republicans and 31 percent said the president. The larger picture is even grimmer for the GOP. The Pew Research Center reports that only one in three Americans has a favorable view of the Republican Party, one of the lowest ratings in nearly two decades.

There’s nothing new about the president’s strategy. During the Clinton years, political scientist Charles O. Jones coined the phrase “campaigning to govern,” which described a president using campaign tactics to push legislative goals. By traveling the country, a president could generate public support for his agenda and apply heat to lawmakers back on Capitol Hill.

During the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan took a similar approach. Back then, the Washington power balance was a mirror image of what it is today: a popular Republican president facing a Democratic House. We were covering Congress, and Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill often told us that he could not stand up to Reagan’s persuasiveness and popularity. With the help of Southern Democratic defectors, Reagan enacted big chunks of his agenda, including sharp tax cuts.

As Reagan proved then, and as Obama is trying to emulate today, the power to shape public opinion is probably a president’s single biggest asset. Karl Rove, the Republican strategist, made that point in a Wall Street Journal article in which he urged party leaders to stand up to Obama. But, warned Rove, “It won’t be easy, given the president’s intrinsic advantages and bigger megaphone.”

Obama made a similar argument, and foreshadowed his current “road show,” in a telling interview last month with The New Republic. Asked what he had learned from history, the president replied: “I always read a lot of Lincoln, and I’m reminded of his adage that with public opinion, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish; without it, you’re not going to get very far. And spending a lot of time in terms of being in a conversation with the American people as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington is an example of the kinds of change in orientation that I think we’ve undergone, not just me personally, but the entire White House.”

The president’s “intrinsic advantages” were on display this week when he visited the shipbuilding center of Newport News, Va., to warn Americans that impending budget cuts are “a self-inflicted wound” that would impair military readiness and cost jobs. Last week, he surrounded himself with steely-eyed first responders and delivered a similar message: You might not like Washington or bureaucrats or red tape, but government still does good things that keep you and your family safe. If those services are degraded, blame the Republicans.

Even a “bigger megaphone” does not guarantee a president’s success, however. After the 1982 election, when Republicans lost 26 House seats, Reagan was forced to compromise more often. Today, Obama faces a House dominated by conservative Republicans who come from safe districts and are largely immune from the kind of pressure the president is trying to stimulate.

Moreover, Obama is president; it’s his watch. If the fiscal standoff continues, if the budget cuts derail the economy, if the markets sputter, if unemployment rises and growth slows, then it’s his legacy that is jeopardized. Having the biggest megaphone in your hand also means having the biggest target on your back.

That’s why the president has to get serious about advancing entitlement reforms that could entice Republicans into a larger bargain on spending and tax policy. He talked in The New Republic about his willingness “to buck the more absolutist-wing elements in our party to get stuff done,” but all he’s done so far is make vague references to “modest” changes in Social Security and Medicare.

He has to do more than that. He has to lead. The president has proved that he’s really good at the campaigning part of “campaigning to govern.” Now that he’s won re-election, it’s time for the governing part.

Email Steve and Cokie Roberts at stevecokie@gmail.com.