President Barack Obama 
(A Note to Readers: Although this space is usually devoted to Irish politics and current affairs, the writer has decided to observe the 24 hour moratorium now underway on election coverage here in Ireland – votes in the presidential election and on two referendum questions are now being cast – and to write a letter to Washington, DC instead. The next column will feature a detailed analysis of the result of the Irish presidential election.)

Dear President Obama:

It’s been a tough ride. I remember my conflicted thinking on that historic night in November 2008: the good news is that he’s won the election; the bad news is that he has to take charge of this mess. And unfortunately, these difficult times have tested you in so many ways. At some times, you have risen to the challenge. At others, speaking frankly, you haven’t.

That’s reality I’m afraid. No one is perfect, including yourself, despite what some of your most ardent disciples – again speaking frankly, I have never been one of them – might have thought in those heady days three years ago when you inspired so many from all walks of life. 

Now, a host of pundits are betting against your re-election. In fairness to them, the indicators aren’t good. The economy is still in the tank, your favorability ratings are at their lowest ebb and the American people are jaded, frustrated and desperate.

But I don’t think all is lost. While your putative Republican rivals fight over the votes of evangelical Christians and tea party sympathizers and sustain self-inflicted wounds to their general election chances in the process,
I’d like to offer three suggestions that you should take on board as you gear up for the fight of your life. 

Unlike so many in your party, I wasn’t unrealistically optimistic when you first took office and I’m not unduly pessimistic right now. I’m balanced. That’s why I think you’d be wise to take my advice.

First, you must reach out in a concerted and very real way to Reagan Democrats and other voters who occupy the vast and nebulous segment of the electorate that comprises Middle America. You made serious mistakes in your last campaign. In San Francisco of all places, you opined that “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” This hurtful, stereotyping comment evidenced a deep unease with and condescending attitude toward many Americans.

Despite this, they took a chance on your candidacy and voted for you. If it weren’t for the casualties and wounds suffered by soldiers in the wars your predecessor initiated in Iraq and Afghanistan – Reagan Democrats and “Middle Americans” are very well represented in the military – and their rapidly declining economic fortunes, the vast majority would not have taken this chance.

You further alienated these voters by your reaction to the now infamous incident where your friend, African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, was arrested outside his home. What you initially saw as an example of racially tinged police brutality that provided fodder for a “teachable moment,” Middle America saw as a character assassination by a self-righteous Harvard professor with a sense of entitlement against an honest cop doing his job.

While the truth of the matter probably lies somewhere in the middle, you reflexively jumped to a different conclusion than the overwhelming majority of voters in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. You carried all three states last time. They remain the states that decide presidential elections and, if you believe the current polls, duplicating these victories may lie beyond the realm of possibility in 2012.

How do you reach out to Reagan Democrats and other voters in Middle America?

Your belief in the virtues of free trade for the wider economy notwithstanding, you must commit to mandating government expenditure for up-skilling and retraining the thousands of blue collar workers who are inevitably displaced when free trade agreements are enacted.

 You must emphasize at every opportunity your pledges to bring American troops home expeditiously from Iraq and Afghanistan. To the extent you can, you must keep the focus away from “hot button” cultural issues where your stances are simply out of step with the views of this segment of the electorate. Lastly, there is personal, human outreach.

 The warmth and humanity you displayed among the people of Moneygall at “home” in Ireland never seems to come to the surface at home in the United States. You need to show that, in addition to being a very capable, intelligent leader, you are a regular guy.

Second, you need to run against the Congress. As unpopular as you are at the moment, the United States Congress is even more unpopular. Fully 87% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Congress. A president running against the Congress is not unprecedented. In fact, President Reagan ran against the excesses of a Democrat-controlled Congress very successfully in the 1980s.

You need to point to unreasonable Republicans, who will fight to the end against the principle that wealthy Americans should pay their fair share of taxes, and to the unreasonable members of your own party, who blissfully ignore the reality that present levels of spending on a variety of programmes are unsustainable. You must make a compelling case to the American people that they need you in the White House for the government to have any chance of functioning effectively.

Your Labor Day comments that “the time for Washington games is over” and “we’re going to see if we’ve got some straight shooters in Congress” represent a good start to a campaign that needs to be waged against the Congress almost as much as it is against the Republican nominee.

Third, and most dramatically, you should request the retirement of your Vice President, Joe Biden, and seek to promote your Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. I know that this has been ruled out already, but I think it should be reconsidered. I remember that your top adviser, David Axelrod, on hearing rumors to this effect previously, responded that “there’s absolutely nothing to it” and that Mrs. Clinton herself said “I have no interest.” Of course, both you and Mrs. Clinton will need to swallow a lot of pride after your divisive primary fight last time around for this to happen. Here’s why it should.

Hillary Clinton appeals to Reagan Democrats and to Middle America. Remember that she beat you in the Ohio and Pennsylvania Democratic primaries in 2008 and, even after you had the nomination all but sewn up, she pulverized you in West Virginia and Kentucky. Having Mrs. Clinton on the ticket will help you immeasurably in these crucial states in a general election.

Hillary Clinton has an incredible breadth of experience. She was an outspoken and influential first lady; she served in the United States Senate; and she has acquitted herself very well as Secretary of State. Her approval ratings are sky high and she is a credible, highly regarded figure around the globe.

Finally, Hillary Clinton would be the first female vice president. Mrs. Clinton would obviously help you with women voters, especially in battleground states, and would change the dynamics of next year’s presidential election entirely. Her presence on the ticket could reignite the freshness and excitement of your own history making candidacy in 2008.

Of course, there are other things you need to do. Mobilizing the young and minority voters who supported you in record numbers last time; devising coherent economic policies to right the American economic ship before election day; and quelling the discontent with your leadership in your own party are three others. Yet I think the three things I suggest are equally important and I hope you take my advice.

I wish you the best of luck.

Sincerely yours,
A Democrat in Ireland