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Dick Polman: Obama should try the Truman approach

An unsolicited memo to Barack Obama:

Mr. President, can you speak Truman? If you want to stay in office beyond 2012, you need to channel his language.

Enough, already, with all your overtures to the Republicans. Why bother trying to extend your hand to people whose primal impulse is to devour it? You surely remember what happened the other day. You suggested extending the payroll tax cut in order to boost consumer spending, and key House Republicans naturally said "no." They won't even cooperate with you on a tax cut. That alone proves there's no point in talking to them anymore.

I know you'd prefer to believe, as you said in your '04 convention speech, that America is not fundamentally divided between red- and blue-state mentalities. But your experience in office has surely taught you that it is. There are people who want to destroy you politically. Your only choice is to use them as a foil — just as give-'em-hell Harry stumped in 1948 against "the do-nothing Republican Congress." The sole viable strategy is to confront them and win.

Nobody thought Truman would win, in part because he was deemed a national joke. Americans quipped, "To err is Truman." They would ask, in moments of crisis, "What would Truman do if he were alive?" And he was beset by many crises — inflation, strikes, housing shortages. The Republicans had captured Congress in 1946 with the slogan "Had enough?" and believed they had a mandate to slash government. They routinely blocked Truman's proposals, including equal rights for black citizens. In response, Truman campaigned against their obstructionism. He converted it into an asset and reframed the terms of debate.

You need to do the same. Americans don't want to hear you whine anymore about how frustrated you are. They respect a president who fights — even a president with whom they may disagree. And this Congress could be the perfect foil.

Truman's Congress at least managed a few signature achievements, such as passing the Marshall Plan. The current Republican House is best known for going on record with a plan to eradicate Medicare, and driving us to the precipice of default.

To your credit, you've started to speak Truman already. At a recent event, you said that you would soon unveil specific job-creation proposals, and warned that if the Republicans obstruct again, "then we'll be running against a Congress that's not doing anything for the American people, and the choice will be very stark and very clear." You said that it's wrong "to reward unreasonableness. Look, I get that."

Finally, you get it. The key is to stay combative. Too often in the past, you have oscillated between fighter mode and doormat mode. There's no need to lapse, because most Americans are primed for a message about Republican overreach. They're teeing you up, so swing away.

Perhaps you've seen the latest CNN poll. The Republicans' approval rating has plummeted since they fomented the debt-ceiling crisis. Currently, only 33 percent of Americans view the GOP favorably, while 59 percent don't. The Democrats are at 47-47, roughly the same as they've been all year. Most important, the GOP's 59 percent thumbs-down rating is the worst that CNN has ever recorded, dating back to 1992.

Elsewhere, Gallup now reports that when Americans are asked to state a preference in the 2012 congressional races, 51 percent want a Democrat and 44 percent want a Republican. Gallup says the Democrats have steadily ascended since early this year. One can only attribute this shift in public mood to the GOP's intransigence. Indeed, the party's mentality was reinforced when all eight presidential candidates at a GOP debate voiced opposition to any future budget deal that includes any tax hikes.

And did you see what an ex-Bush White House adviser wrote online? Quoting Peter Wehner: "If taxes cannot be raised under any circumstances, then we have veered from economic policy to religious catechism. There is something amiss when the political pressure in a party, any party, is so intense that it prevents a serious intellectual conversation from even taking place."

If a former Karl Rove deputy can say those things, surely that is more than sufficient cover for you to go medieval on the GOP brand.

Get specific about job creation. Send specific bills to Capitol Hill. Dare the Republicans to do nothing. When they do nothing, call them on it. Spend the next 15 months speaking Truman.

Last, heed the words of Cicero, the orator of ancient Rome, who reputedly said that if you find yourself stuck in politics, start a fight. Even if you don't know how to win it, it's only when the fight is on that you can hope to see your way through.

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