John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Advice to Obama

Posted on September 10, 2009
I don’t really expect President Barack Obama and his advisers to listen to advice from a partisan Republican like me. But sometimes I can’t help but give it anyway.


The president is getting badly hammered by the left for not being aggressive enough and being accused by the right of being something left of a socialist. Independent voters are increasingly siding with Republicans as they see Obama spending trillions of dollars on bigger government.


He is getting ready to ditch the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, a government-run public insurance plan. Most analysts believe that his plan to impose a so-called cap-and-trade system on our energy sector will fail. He had to fire his green jobs czar because the guy signed a petition that accused the U.S. government of engineering the Sept. 11 attacks so that we could invade Iraq. He is getting to be so toxic to a large percentage of voters that he had to explain why he wanted to talk to school kids nationwide.


Obama is reeling. He is on his heels, and despite having substantial majorities in both chambers, he looks weak, he risks losing his credibility and his agenda looks dead in the water.


How can he revive his presidency, promote his agenda and save his reputation? Act like the Republicans have already taken control of Congress.


I know this might sound like a pipe dream, and perhaps it is. But the very best way for the president to get back to the vital center is to negotiate with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and not with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).


Pelosi will continue to push Obama away from the center to the far left, and Reid, whose own political fortunes are very dicey in his home state of Nevada because of his own perceived lurch to the left, has thrown his lot in with the liberals and similarly turned his back on the center.


Usually, a president overreaches badly when he has such complete control over the legislative process, as Obama does, and is then badly hurt in the next election when the American people decide that they need a check on the president’s power.


Why should Obama wait for the inevitable election disaster that will come as a result of his sharp moves to the left? Why can’t he start governing from the center now, by acting as if the Republicans already control Congress?

Here are some things he can insist on as he negotiates with Congress that will help him govern like a centrist:


Insist that Republicans provide half the votes for every piece of big legislation. Republicans may not want to help the president get himself to the center, and they may secretly love it that he has turned out to be so solicitous of the left wing. But the president can promise to veto every bill that doesn’t have at least half of the Republicans voting for it. That would set up a dynamic where the speaker and the Senate majority leader are actually asking the Republicans for their input instead of shutting them out of every important meeting. If the Republicans still refuse to play, he could shut the government down, just like President Bill Clinton did in 1995.


Require his Cabinet secretaries to respond to Republican requests for information and appear at Republican committee hearings. As the minority, Republicans don’t have any power. They don’t have subpoena power, and they can’t really chair committee hearings. But they often have unofficial committee hearings, and they always ask the administration for information. The president can treat the GOP with respect and act as if it really has power. And if the president’s team acts as if it might be subpoenaed at any time, it will be much more careful and circumspect about how it acts.


Veto all tax increases. Republicans don’t do tax increases, and that keeps them out of trouble. The president should just assume that if the Republicans were in charge, they wouldn’t give you a tax increase to sign. Follow their lead. The American people don’t want higher taxes, especially in a slowing economy. Just veto the tax increases given to you by Reid and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).


He should fight for what he believes in but be willing to take half a loaf. When you are forced to negotiate with your opponents, you are much more willing to take half. When you are negotiating with your friends, you expect to get the whole enchilada. True compromise is the best way to keep all stakeholders engaged, for all participants to put a little skin in the game and to unite the country.


This last month was probably the worst August for any president since Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. Obama should already see the writing on the wall. At this rate, he will lose the House, and he may even lose the Senate. Instead of waiting to get clobbered in the midterm elections, the president should learn from history and start governing from the middle now. That means working with the Republicans and treating them like the majority they may soon be again.


John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm, and blogs at
Read more:
Read more: