Skip to main content

Four ways for Obama to lead U.S. out of crisis

By Eric Liu, Special to CNN
updated 3:20 PM EDT, Wed October 9, 2013
The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown. Many government services and agencies remain completely or partially closed. The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown. Many government services and agencies remain completely or partially closed.
HIDE CAPTION
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Liu: The pro-shutdown radicals have no interest in resolution
  • Liu: Though the president didn't make the crisis, as a leader, it falls to him to fix it
  • He says there are four ways Obama can be more proactive in ending shutdown
  • Liu: If default approaches, Obama needs to do a prime-time address to the public

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and author of several books, including "The Gardens of Democracy" and "The Accidental Asian." He served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu

(CNN) -- Last week, as the government shutdown began, I found myself irritated by establishment conservative commentators like Peggy Noonan, who said President Obama needed to lead and resolve the crisis -- as if the hostage-takers in the House had nothing to do with the matter.

But lately, I've realized that those commentators were right. The pro-shutdown radicals have no interest in resolution. Moderate Republicans are too timid and too few. And it's too easy for angry Democrats to point out, as was my own first reflex, that they didn't create this mess.

So it does fall to Obama to lead us out of the dysfunction. Thus far, he's focused more on a Beltway audience. In a news conference on Tuesday, Obama explained lucidly that the economy shouldn't be treated as ransom. But few Americans were watching. And for the most part, he has used his aides or private phone calls to reiterate his position that no substantive negotiations can begin until the tea party caucus releases the government.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

This is not wrong. It's just an inside game. What the president needs to do now is play the outside game robustly.

Opinion: Goodbye to the strategy Republicans knew was a fantasy

Now, again, let's be very clear: This shutdown is the making of a reckless fringe of the Republican Party and a House speaker too weak to control it. There should be no false equivalency in any honest reading of the origins of the crisis. But in the end, pointing out this asymmetry of blame is not the same as leading. Leaders solve problems. They lead.

Although the president didn't make this crisis, he needs to fix it. To do that, he should start using his office far more assertively, to shift the terms of the debate so that he is understood in popular opinion not as one of two equal antagonists but as the sole representative of sane, grown-up, responsible leadership.

Obama has a national megaphone that no one -- not even a senator staging a fake filibuster -- can match. He is more trusted (or at least less mistrusted than Congress) to tell it straight.

Obama: Boehner should not delay vote
Obama: America's good name is at stake

Here are a few ways for him to take the initiative.

1. Speak directly to Americans.

First, the president should speak more directly and more often to the American people. He could do a series of "fireside chats" every night for a week, describing how we got here, explaining why giving in to tea party blackmail would be wrong and generating popular pressure on Speaker John Boehner to end the shutdown.

His team could put the chats on social media and let them spread or even buy a block of ad time during Sunday's football games to air the whole series.

If the crisis drags on and the date of default approaches, he should do a prime-time address from the Oval Office befitting the level of crisis. Stagecraft matters. A news conference like the one he held on Tuesday is better than nothing, but it is still playing to the Washington media and is inherently reactive.

2. Build a "coalition of the responsible."

The president should invite every non-radical Republican he can find -- not just current Washington players but also recent candidates like Tim Pawlenty and elders like President George H.W. Bush and Colin Powell, as well as business leaders from across the country -- for a national unity session that claims the center and isolates the fringe.

The message of the session, voiced not by him but by these Republicans, should be that while the parties can disagree vehemently on taxes and spending and health care, using as leverage the financing of government itself is radical and dangerous. The president should emphasize that his quarrel is not with Republican voters or their party but with a band of radicals.

3. Meet the people, especially those who hate you.

The president should schedule town meetings in the districts of the most radical Republicans, offering to meet with the citizens there to listen and to make his case. He will certainly face vitriol. But that's the point: He will face it. He will be there meeting people with respect and even empathy. He will show that he doesn't write off any American, even those who demonize him. This will be far more powerful than going to friendly audiences for staged events -- and it will make clear to independents that he can break out of the usual partisan script.

4. Get concrete about good faith.

Fourth, he could go beyond his generic willingness to discuss long-term tax and entitlement issues and commit specifically to a negotiation that begins the day after the government reopens and the debt ceiling is satisfactorily raised. Here, too, he can claim the mantle of good faith and reasonableness.

Opinion: Obstructing government, from Huey Long to Ted Cruz

Of course, he could also do all of the above, with campaign-style optimism and an openness of mind and heart that will contrast sharply with the fanaticism of the pro-shutdown caucus.

This prefabricated crisis may end suddenly, or it may linger and bring us to the very edge of a disastrous default. Either way, it behooves the president now to lead in more visible, more symbolic, more populist ways -- not only to prevail on this fight but to restore a politics in which not every fight has to be a fight to the death. Congress has never made it clearer why we need a strong president.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Liu.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT