Skip to main content

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

By Eric Liu, Special to CNN
October 9, 2013 -- Updated 1920 GMT (0320 HKT)
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
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT