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A year in, how Obama can turn things around

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Life is about choices, and so is a presidency. When the history of Barack Obama’s is written, the scribes will look at his decision to focus on health care and to let Congress write the bill. The verdict will likely be harsh.

He used up his political capital — and may not even get any legislation, now that Republican Scott Brown, who campaigned against it, swept to victory in the Senate race in Massachusetts.

The health care crusade put the worst traits of a (Democratic) Congress on display; made the Obama Administration look elitist, out of touch and too liberal for independent voters; and allowed the White House to be perceived as imperious and incompetent — a toxic combination.

Voters wanted an in-touch government to offer a helping hand and a guiding light out of the recession — not assistance in the form of a confused, massive piece of social engineering.

But in politics (as in life), as long as you’re breathing you have hope — and another chance.

So, on this first anniversary of the Obama inauguration, here's what the president and his team can do to turn things around:

Don't panic
Don’t let your fellow Democrats panic. When bunched together in Congress, party members can behave like a herd of buffalo. They stampede at scary sounds. Now is the time for Obama to use his legendary cool to reassure the Dems that all is not lost — they are only one year into his term, and he has accomplished some worthy things. Invite them to the White House, in groups or en masse. Talk about what has gone wrong and how to make it right. Be leaderly. I have seen him do it.

Focus on Independents
Focus on Independents. Despite occasional slip-ups, Obama was relentless about this when he ran in 2008 — and Democrats have since lost that fire. In Massachusetts, people must realize, more than half of voters are registered as unaffiliated with a political party — creating one of the largest chunks of independent voters in the nation. These voters tend to care most about spending (they are wary of it), badly run government (they see too much of it), and a lack of bipartisanship (there is none of it in Washington).

Cut your losses
Cut your losses on health care. There is no good option in this political disaster. Perhaps the best thing to do is to break the massive legislation into pieces and dare the GOP to vote against the best parts of it, like the requirement that insurance companies permanently cover all patients.

Create jobs
Pledge that, for the next year, your sole domestic focus will be job creation. It’s already clear that the president will focus on this during his State of the Union address next Wednesday. The fact that this is regarded as news, and a change of strategy, proves the problem. The unemployment problem has deepened since he was sworn in exactly a year ago!

Reduce the deficit
Create a real, substantive, and powerful deficit-reduction commission. Yes, the days of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill are long gone, but there is no reason not to try to recreate it. Most Americans do care about the country going bankrupt, even as they demand more benefits from government. Congress can’t seem to handle the conflict. An external mechanism, a Deus ex Machina, is required.

Confess your sins
A confessional speech. Obama doesn’t do confessions — the former president of the Harvard Law Review is not good at admitting he is occasionally stupid. This would be a good time to give such a speech: not an abstract thesis of the lawyerly kind, but one about him. What has surprised him about government, or about running the country? Obama can say that he has learned — in fact, he had better say that.

Be a populist
Be a real populist. Obama ran as an outsider even though many of us knew, that except for his race and his relative youth, he wasn’t really one. He was superbly credentialed and well plugged in from the start. He’s not comfortable with us- against-them rhetoric (or at least likes to cover it in lawyerly syrup) but that is the mood the American people are in, and understandably so. They’ve been screwed by the Big Boys in the corporate world and on Wall Street. So Obama needs to pick a real fight with some real enemies — try the brokers and the banks. Force the supposedly populist GOP Tea Partiers to go along, or join the establishment of their own party.

Leave the District
Get out of D.C. more. And not on half-day jaunts to a plant in Ohio or Maryland. Actually spend some quality time outside the Beltway. I know it’s hard as president, but see and be seen taking the time to really listen to real people.

Shake it up
Consider shaking up the political shop. Everyone was asleep as the tidal wave built in Massachusetts. It’s not just Martha Coakley’s fault, nor is the Washington party apparatus totally to blame. What about the people in the White House? Looking within would show that Obama isn’t just looking for outsiders to blame.

Be a ‘real American’
Don’t try to drive a pickup truck. Leave that for the Scott Browns of the world. But you might want to play a little more basketball in, say, Indiana. That’s the “real America,” too, especially during March Madness. There is a serious point to be made: nobody has an exclusive claim to “the real America.”