WASHINGTON — There's a telling moment at the beginning of Robert A. Caro's new book when Lyndon Johnson's advisers are gathered four days after he has become president to draft his first speech to Congress. Capitol Hill is divided, the country is grieving from the assassination of his predecessor, and some of LBJ's advisers are urging him to take it slow. “Well, what the hell's the presidency for?” Johnson replies.
Barack Obama will be getting advice by the boatload over the next few weeks but the best guidance may be what emerges from Caro's biography, “The Passage of Power”: Think big. Find strategies and pressure points that can break the gridlock in Congress, which was as rigid in 1963 as it is today. Surprise your adversaries with bold moves and concessions that create new space on which to govern.
Watching Tuesday's triumph, it seemed obvious that Obama needs the policy equivalent of David Plouffe, his senior campaign adviser. Plouffe's genius was to decide early on that the race depended on nine battleground states; if he could deliver those states by a relentless and sometimes ruthless assault, he would win the larger victory.
Obama's performance as president has often lacked this decisive, strategic quality. In foreign and domestic policy, the impression of Obama, after his blunderbuss, first-year battles on health care and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, has been of a careful president who reacts to events, waits for others to make the first moves, and plays to avoid losing rather than to win.
A strategic second term would begin by identifying a list of necessary and achievable goals, and then pursuing them with the unyielding manipulative skill of a Lyndon Johnson. On the top of everybody's list would be a budget deal. Everybody knows, more or less, what it will require: changes in Social Security and Medicare that slow the growth of entitlement spending; reform of the tax code that produces a fairer and simpler system that raises revenues without limiting growth.
A road map is there in the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan, and Obama administration officials have been thinking privately for months about how to tweak the plan so it's better and fairer. Mitt Romney's generous concession speech Tuesday night opened a possible door, and the president should follow up his statement that he will “look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.” The president and his new Treasury secretary should take the next step and ask Romney to help close the budget deal the country needs.