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How Obama can get back on track

By Roland S. Martin, CNN Political Analyst
  • The loss of a "safe" Senate seat is a stinging blow to President Obama, says Roland Martin
  • He says Obama still has three years in his term and can turn things around
  • Obama needs to define "change," stress the economy, he says
  • Martin: Obama should use the very popular first lady to further his agenda

Editor's note: Roland S. Martin, a CNN political analyst, is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith," "Speak, Brother! A Black Man's View of America," and the forthcoming book, "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for TV One Cable Network and host of a one-hour Sunday morning news show.

(CNN) -- President Truman made popular the phrase, "The buck stops here." In his first year, President Obama has invoked that on several occasions, stepping up to take responsibility when his staff or party has messed up.

Now, in the wake of Democrats losing what was seen arguably as the safest Democratic U.S. Senate seat in America, that of the liberal lion Ted Kennedy, there is a significant amount of sniping, backbiting and finger-pointing going on between Democrats, progressives and independents that lean their way.

The loss is fresh and it stings. With the party being so close to passing the one issue that it has fought for for years, only to possibly see the issue die with the election of a Republican in the seat occupied by the greatest champion of national health care. It clearly hurts like hell for Democrats.

And it should.

When you get your butt summarily kicked, you should lick your wounds and step back and figure out what went wrong and how you failed.

Obama knows how that feels. When he was an Illinois state senator and was blown away by Rep. Bobby Rush for a Chicago congressional seat in 2000, he had to go and figure out why he lost, study the major mistakes he made and figure out a way to do it differently.

The professorial-like Obama had to shed that image, as well as figure out how to fight back against a bare-knuckled opponent who questioned whether he could effectively represent the common man on the South Side of Chicago given his Harvard pedigree. The loss has been described as a painful shock to his system.

But he did figure it out and is in the White House because of it.

Now he has a much bigger task, and that's trying to restore the luster of his inauguration a year ago and jumpstart the second year of his presidency with so many major obstacles staring him down. Here are must-dos for this president and the Democratic apparatus if they want to survive:

1. He must define "change." Democrats can say all they want, but the reality is that the airy, hopeful and inspirational messages of hope and change work during a campaign, but they must be defined once you win. Republicans and independents did a helluva job of painting the picture of "change you can believe in," and turned it against the Obama administration.

Whether it was health care or the stimulus, the big government label stuck and they couldn't shed it. He must communicate the clear tenets of his presidency and make that the focus of his party. Otherwise, voters will be confused about his goals.

2. It's all about the economy. Every time Obama tried to explain health care reform being about economic reform, I scratched my head. I constantly asked his advisers how raising the deficit could eventually lower the deficit. The answer was always academic and confusing rather than a straight-forward one that the average person could easily understand.

The long-term benefits of health care reform will always lose out when folks don't have a job and are losing their homes. It's simple politics. When the president's signature home foreclosure program is deemed a massive failure for only helping 4 percent of those in the program and the response is virtual silence from Democrats in Congress and in the White House, then there is a disconnect from the American people and their everyday issues.

3. Tell your party leaders to get a backbone. A few years ago Rep. John Conyers, the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, told me that when Democrats are in the majority, they really only have a core of about 165 votes in the House. To get to a winning 220 votes, they need to negotiate with a lot of their own members, thus weakening whatever legislation comes up. On the other hand, Republicans often begin with 205 votes, and they are able to drop the hammer to keep their folks in line. In essence, the Democratic Party is too democratic.

In the Senate, the Dems now have 59 votes, far more than what President Bush had. You cannot be effective if you're spending more time fighting and placating your own party than the opposition.

Republicans hit the beach, burn the boats and drive their agenda through and apologize later. Mr. President, your party is in need of some political Viagra. The indecision makes you and the party look weak, and that doesn't instill any sense of confidence in your base. It's time to press the case and tick some folks off so they can get a spine.

4. Change your communication strategy. The president's oratorical skills are amazing. But all too often, he has to sell everything. Take your pick among his cabinet, and you will find a number of stumbling and bumbling folks. Early on it was Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Lately it has been Homeland Security honcho Janet Napolitano. As a result, Obama has to always come in to clean up their messes. The tendency of his team is to let the big guy sell everything.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates appear to be the only three who can hold their own and not have to rely on the president to make the case. On some of the terror issues, it's time to take the straitjacket off of Attorney General Eric Holder. They must get more aggressive and let Labor Secretary Hilda Solis carry the ball on the economy.

Second, the Obama administration has spent a ton of time courting the usual journalistic suspects in Washington and New York when it should be interfacing directly with local columnists, reporters and editorial boards where folks know the true sentiment of America. Keeping Thomas Friedman and David Brooks and the "Gang of 500" political reporters in Washington and New York happy may make for great relationships on the D.C. cocktail circuit, but it doesn't deliver in terms of connecting with the average American who backed his candidacy in 2008.

5. Get fired up and ready to go. When it was clear Americans were angry with Wall Street, the administration hit them with feathers rather than a two-by-four. They thought the stick and carrot approach would work; the public wanted their economic pain soothed by Wall Street feeling some pain.

We watched as the president and his team complained for nine months about Wall Street bonuses and did nothing about it. A tongue-lashing was a waste of time. And then last week, the president announces a $90 billion tax hit to get the taxpayers' money back. Too little, too late.

6. Put the "closer" in the game. The White House has been careful to protect first lady Michelle Obama. Forget that. She should be doing more than talking about fashion, gardens and things like that. In my new book on the campaign, "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House," actor Malik Yoba recalls hearing her speak and says, "Whoever is married to that woman, I've got his back." Yea, she's that good. And by not using her more effectively on policy issues, the White House is wasting an enormous resource.

The president and his party have had a difficult last six months of his first year. But there are three more years to go. It's wrong to think that his presidency is over with three years to go; a positive change in the economy will change a whole lot.

All is not lost for Democrats. But with their party having decreased enthusiasm, coupled with a fired-up Republican base, it's clear that Mr. Cool is going to need to shake some things up to restore the promise of his presidency and keep Democratic majorities in November.

A lot has to change for Obama and the Democratic Party, and it must begin with him.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland Martin.