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Are Obama's 'signature initiatives' falling flat?

The Obama administration has been marked by a multitude of policy thrusts — but the president’s “signature initiatives” have lacked strong signatures.
Obama
The Obama administration has been marked by a multitude of policy thrusts — but the president’s “signature initiatives” have lacked strong signatures. Susan Walsh / AP

Is President Barack Obama really such a great communicator?

True, his “Yes We Can” campaign mantra was so inspiring it was turned into rap poetry by musician Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas.

Yes, his steel-trap command of complicated ideas (as demonstrated in press conferences and interviews) made his predecessor’s mind look like a leaky sieve.

But there’s been something missing in Obama’s message since he came off the stump and moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And its absence has contributed to his falling poll numbers and the end of his honeymoon with the media.

David Brooks of The New York Times calls it an overarching “narrative.”

A top European diplomat I recently spoke with describes it as a “central theme.” (This envoy comes from a country where school children earn gold stars more for essays that showcase elegant themes rather than strong facts.)

Missing ‘moon shots’
I would go one step further. What is lacking is not just a unifying philosophy but rather energizing “moon shots” — ambitious, highly visible programs that serve as microcosms of a larger vision.

In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was crystallized in specific programs with names that have stuck in the lexicon of history.

The Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration stood for putting unemployed Americans back to work. The Tennessee Valley Authority was concrete shorthand for the government's investment in a shaken infrastructure.

During the Kennedy administration, the Peace Corps became of a tangible manifestation of a torch being passed — suddenly, there was a new generation embracing a fresh kind of “soft power” to reach out to the decolonizing and developing world.

And JFK’s vision of a “New Frontier” (first uttered in his acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention), was captured quite literally in the promise to put an American on the moon by the end of the decade.

By comparison, the Obama administration has been marked by a multitude of policy thrusts: an economic stimulus; a health care overhaul; revamped financial regulation; a clean energy initiative; and a slow-motion rethinks of policy in Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere — without a unifying battle front.

The president’s “signature initiatives” have lacked strong signatures.

The stimulus package? Almost $800 billion. Can you name one memorable program besides Cash for Clunkers?

Health care reform? Think hard. Nothing? Me neither.

Jobs summit opportunity
I raise all of this in anticipation of the “jobs summit” that Obama will serve up in early December after everyone returns from Thanksgiving break.

At first blush, this summit appears like a classic Washington gimmick — when you don’t have the money or political will to do something about a big problem, hold a conference to make it look like you’re doing something.

But the summit could present an opportunity to launch a new, high-profile program that would demonstrate his “Job No. 1” plan is truly about jobs.

I would argue that that program should be all about small business.

As Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com, has pointed out, one out of every four American workers is employed by a company with a payroll of 20 employees or less. In the last economic recovery, companies of this size accounted for 40 percent of all new jobs created.

This time around, if our double-digit unemployment arrow is ever going to turn downward, the percentage of new jobs that come from small business will need to rise even higher.

(Let’s be honest: does anyone believe that big Fortune 500 companies that have laid off workers in the thousands during this recession are going to be hiring back in meaningful numbers anytime soon?)

A laser-like focus on small business would not only be smart economics — it would also be shrewd politics. Will the Republicans dare be the “Party of No” if Obama is saying “yes” to a cause they traditionally have held so dear?

Good media management?
It would also be good media management. Say this new program combined a mixture of tax credits and other hiring incentives — including requirements for bailed-out banks to lend to small businesses and honors for Americans who start particularly inventive enterprises.

Commentators on the right who have blasted Obama as a big-government liberal would be disarmed. “Opinionmeisters” on the left would have an answer to their charge that the president hasn’t gotten enough Wall Street payback for taxpayer dollars.

For old-fashioned reporters, it could yield hundreds of narrative- and video-friendly stories about once-downtrodden businesses benefiting from the program.

Consider the media charge that Obama has taken on too much at once — well, small business is one river into which the separate, meandering tributaries of the president’s agenda all flow.

Small business owners desperately need a better way of paying for health care. Clean energy should be a fertile source of start-ups. Education reform should be focused on giving Americans the skills and creativity to remain global leaders in entrepreneurship.

Of course, labor leaders would prefer that jobs be created and saved in the places where their members work: big government and big business.

But will Obama, who was backed by unions but does not owe his election to them, be willing to resist that pressure and instead openly embrace a small business agenda? It would be an interesting test of his vow to be a new kind of Democrat.

Call it the “small business shot.” Or maybe not …

But the President should give it a shot.