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What Obama Could Learn From Kitzhaber

November 3rd, 2012 · No Comments

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President Obama won’t but should visit Oregon before Election Day on Tuesday. Oregon’s seven electoral votes are assuredly blue, so the campaign has ignored the state. What the incumbent president could learn from a visit — or at least a heart-to-heart phone call to Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber — could change how he does the job he wants to keep for another four years.

Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign raised money and recruited volunteers from every state in the union. His emails, TV ads, and volunteer armies reached deep into areas that had been safely Republican for a generation. This forced Republican candidate John McCain to spend time, money and attention defending states and electoral votes that the Bushes before him could take for granted.

What a difference four years makes. Obama’s 50-state strategy in 2008 has been replaced by a 50-precinct strategy — and most of those precincts are in eastern Ohio. By next Wednesday, pundits will sit amazed that an incumbent president of the United States will have spent attention on a handful of Rust Belt voters as if he was running to be Ohio’s governor or a Steubenville, Ohio city councilor.

This small-bore strategy has only one flaw and it has nothing to do with the campaign. The office Obama seeks to retain is much bigger than Steubenville or Ohio. If micro-targeting of swing voters succeeds, he’ll win a second term without any mandate for governance, and his Republican opposition in Congress will know it.

Here’s President Barack Obama’s quandary. Would he rather win small or lose tall? He cannot rely on his aides or advisers to puzzle this out for him, because their jobs rely on winning. The president’s retirement pension is assured. His stature and legacy are all that’s uncertain. The president loves Martin Luther King’s admonition about “bending the arc of history.” Can he do it when the history is his own?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell famously confided to the National Journal in 2010 that Republicans’ chief legislative goal was “for President Obama to be a one-term president.” There’s no reason to believe the Republicans in Congress will change their recent history, unless that arc gets bent.

If Obama can avert his eyes from all things win-lose and focus instead on small-tall, he still has a chance to grow into the “transformative figure” he aspired to be in 2008. It’s a risky campaign strategy to take his eyes off Steubenville and other swing precincts, but it would open the opportunity to finish his tenure doing big things.

He should campaign in these final days like the president he wants to be for the next four years. On this matter he can benefit powerfully from Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s experience and wisdom.

Kitzhaber left the governor’s mansion in 2003 bemoaning that Oregon had “become ungovernable.” Like healing from a bad marriage, he slowly learned how he had contributed to his own unhappiness. His diffidence toward legislators in general and Republicans in particular resulted in so many vetoes he earned the nickname Dr. No.

What the governor gained in prestige, he lost in control.

Since returning to the office in 2011, he has engaged everyone involved in legislation deeply and often. He’s been more effective as governor and he seems to be enjoying it more. Together with the legislature, he is accomplishing big things.

If President Obama wants his next term to differ from his last, he should heed Kitzhaber’s lesson: deign and reign are four-fifths the same.

Reaching out to Congress needn’t feel like reaching down. They can help him if they believe he cares. And the best time to show that is before an election.

If Obama visited Bend this weekend and hinted he’d help a strong Democratic candidate in the 2014 election, do you think Rep. Greg Walden might be more willing to break ranks with Speaker of the House John Boehner’s lockstep majority? If he dropped by to pump up Rep. Peter DeFazio’s supporters, would that favor be returned in Washington? You bet.

The arc of history doesn’t point northwest. So bend it.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.

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