Stop Campaigning, Mr. President

The President has great campaign skills. But a strategy based on doing what is comfortable rather than what is difficult will doom his second term

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Oliver Munday for TIME

President Obama has started his second term as if his re-election campaign had never ended. That is a titanic mistake. White House aides are fundamentally misreading the political landscape if they think a barrage of fiery stump speeches and campaign-style advocacy will achieve anything in Washington. In reality, the it-is-always-a-campaign thinking will subvert any chance for a meaningful Obama success in his second term.

There is no doubt the Republican Party faces a crisis in the broader electorate, particularly with the young, female and Latino voters who will be critical in the 2016 presidential election. But the immediate political battle is not about votes at the 2016 ballot box. It is about votes in Congress, where in the short term the Republicans are actually in a far stronger political position than the President.

Unlike his congressional opponents, President Obama faces a merciless countdown clock. In about 18 months, the national political agenda will become hostage to the 2014 midterm elections. After that, a high-stakes 2016 presidential-nomination contest will shift into high gear inside both parties. The President has little time to waste.

The White House realizes this and has come to the shaky conclusion that the President’s best tactic is to continue the campaign theatrics and force the GOP-controlled Congress to bend to his will. Showing the hubris of all things Obama, the White House has forgotten that while he won re-election fair and square with about 66 million votes, 61 million other Americans voted to fire the President. Many of those anti-Obama voters live and vote in the 232 congressional districts firmly held by Republicans. It is terribly naive to think that stuffing e-mail inboxes and presidential hectoring on the stump will persuade those voters — and their members of Congress — to support the President’s decidedly left-tilting second-term agenda. When the President threatens the Republicans in Congress with “or else,” they just roll their eyes and wonder “or else what?” In their precincts, he is not even a paper tiger.

The midterm elections, in fact, are almost certain to make things even worse for the President. The benchmark the media will use to measure the success of his second term will be set on decidedly Republican turf. The Democrats have to defend six Senate seats in states that voted to defeat the President. In the House, the sitting President’s party has gained seats only twice in midterms since 1938. The GOP should be very worried about 2016, but for 2014 things look pretty good.

So the President must choose: Does he want a second term of rhetoric without results while the rest of us suffer under an exploding federal debt and endless recession? Or does he want to actually get big, important things like immigration and entitlement reform done?

To accomplish the latter, the President must abandon the silly campaign 3.0 stuff and face reality. Only a bold Nixon-to-China-style realignment of Washington’s budgeting politics can give him — and the country — a meaningful second term. Six magic words can unlock the door to the votes inside the Republican fortress: Some beneficiaries pay more and chained CPI, budgetary code for slightly lowering benefit increases over time. Saying those words would mean the President is finally serious about facing the soaring cost of entitlements, with adjustments to future cost increases in Social Security and Medicare as well as a modest increase in what some must pay into the programs. The Democratic leadership will violently oppose this, but if the President really aspires to use his political capital as he says he does, then he must use it on his own party, where it can actually accomplish a result. The President should not forget that the Republicans are willing to do very unpopular things to confront the national-debt crisis. He should take advantage of that rare impulse of theirs, not dismiss it. With the momentum from real entitlement reform, he might even get the GOP to agree to increase tax revenue some more.

On immigration, the President doesn’t even need to push his party. He just needs to step out of the spotlight. Every time he points his finger at Congress and makes demands, he makes it harder for GOP leaders struggling to move an immigration bill with a path to legal status through the dangerous shoals of a divided Congress. That is why senior Republican leaders — and a few top Democratic leaders — privately wish the President would just be quiet and go away on this issue so they can try to grind out the best deal that can actually pass.

The President has great campaign skills. But a strategy based on doing what is comfortable rather than what is difficult will doom his second term.