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Five things Obama should do to lead

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • David Gergen: Many Americans feels like U.S. is lurching, leaderless in economic storm
  • He says President Obama is a good man but not leading in the way the country deserves
  • He offers suggestions, including bringing Congress back from vacation to take on jobs issue
  • Gergen: Obama should assemble team of heavyweight advisers, fill key, economic post

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @David_Gergen.

(CNN) -- When you have flown through a heavy storm, the plane tossing one way and another, have you ever wondered whether there was really anyone in the cockpit? That's the feeling that many Americans have today -- as if we are lurching through an economic storm with no one in charge.

Ordinarily in a crisis, people keep their hopes up because a leader steps forward and instills faith that eventually, this, too, shall pass. Think of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II, calming the country with his fireside chats. Think of John F. Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis. Or Walter Cronkite during the Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations. Ronald Reagan after his shooting. Or Rudy Giuliani on 9/11.

But in the current economic turmoil, the country doesn't have much confidence in anyone. With the stock markets crashing early this week, President Barack Obama tried to reassure -- and the Dow sank another 200 points. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke up Tuesday, and the roller coaster continued. While still popular with their base, Republican leaders have lost considerable ground beyond that group. Voices in the White House -- and some outside -- blame the media for making things worse than they are. And CEOs -- looked to as oracles only a few years ago -- have long since toppled from their pedestals.

Thursday's economic news (a better jobs report, rising stock prices) offers a ray of sunshine. Indeed, things will eventually get modestly better. But we shouldn't fool ourselves: In both the United States and Europe, economic distress will continue for a long time. The Fed is now estimating another two years.

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Where are we to turn for leadership? At the risk of sickening repetition, it is worth remembering the sign that Harry Truman kept on his desk in the Oval Office: "The buck stops here." Whether we like it or not, our security heavily depends upon a president who is strong, effective, and leads from the front.

Let's acknowledge that the president is a good man who has been trying hard. And indeed he is not given enough credit for his successes. Acknowledge, too, that his options are limited and anything he tries will be attacked by recalcitrants on the other side. Even so, it seems glaringly obvious that he is not leading in the way the country deserves -- and desperately needs.

What might he do now? Others will have better ideas, I am sure, but here are a few that I would consider immediately:

• Stop campaigning for 90 days to concentrate full energies on the economy. Cancel the bus tour, the fundraisers, etc., (yes, keep your family vacation -- everyone in the Obama household deserves it), and first and foremost, reclaim the label that FDR had in the Depression: "Dr. Fix It." Chronic campaigning more than a year before election undermines presidential authority.

• Summon Republican and Democratic congressional leaders back from vacations and hash out a deal on jobs. Obama has priorities (payroll tax extension, unemployment insurance, trade, infrastructure, etc.), but so do Republicans (regulatory relief, especially for small business; repatriation of corporate profits; trade; increased energy production, etc.) There is a deal to be made here; both sides need to rebuild public confidence. And most of all, the country needs more middle-class jobs.

• Appoint a heavyweight such as Laura Tyson to fill the vacancy in the chairmanship of the Council of Economic Advisers. (She held the job in the Clinton administration.) It is stunning that no one has yet been named to succeed Austan Goolsbee, who announced his departure months ago. Yes, the job requires Senate confirmation, but it should be a key, inner circle post at this White House.

• Surround yourself with the most authoritative economic players in the country and consult with them regularly -- from former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker to former Treasury secretaries (Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, James Baker, George Shultz, Henry Paulson), Warren Buffett, CEOs, labor leaders, and yes, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. The public will be reassured if they know the best people, irrespective of party, are putting their shoulders to the wheel.

• Pay attention to the tone inside the White House. Reports filter out that many on staff -- not everyone -- are angry and feeling victimized, blaming Republicans, Standard & Poor's and the media for current troubles. White Houses in the past have felt self-pity, but it is a waste of emotional energy and doesn't solve the problem.

The floor is open and recommendations are welcome for other ideas. But can we please get beyond the finger-pointing? Can we please begin to focus on what our leaders -- and we -- can do together? As Ben Franklin said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.