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
<<
<
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
>
>>
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 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT