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Hunt: Mr. Obama, it's time for you to get presidential

Published: Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 9:56 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON – Democratic lawmakers left for their summer recess worried about the midterm elections and despondent over President Barack Obama.

Congressional Republicans were torn asunder by internecine warfare, but there also was palpable anxiety among Democrats. Based on conversations with a dozen top Democrats, mostly members, here’s what they might write in a private letter to Obama:

Dear Mr. President,

We write this in a constructive spirit, knowing you’ve been dealt a difficult hand in foreign policy and face legislative gridlock at home. Yet without significant changes, the next three months could be perilous for you and our party.

First, erase the F-word – fatalism – from your rhetoric and mindset. Too often, what you convey is that we’re gripped by political paralysis at home and at the mercy of irrational acts overseas.

We share your frustration. But fatalism isn’t an option for the leader of the free world.

Moreover, this mindset lets congressional Republicans off the hook. Make them accountable – make them respond to your initiatives, not the other way around.

A painful illustration of this is immigration. Republicans have neutralized the issue, for now, by blaming you for the congressional stalemate and for creating a crisis as undocumented children stream across the border.

The reality is that the Senate-passed, bipartisan immigration bill would get a majority in the House today, but Republican leaders, scared of the right-wing base, won’t permit a vote.

Yes, this influx of kids from Latin America is a human tragedy, but the number of illegal border crossings is only a fraction of what it was a decade ago, under a Republican president.

And spending on border control has increased more than 50 percent during your tenure.

You drew some of these lines at Friday’s news conference. How many voters know this?

By all means, use an executive order to give work permits to, and avoid deportation of, the parents of those young undocumented “Dreamers.” Call it family values. The Republicans will go berserk, but the more vitriolic they get, the greater the probable voter backlash in November.

Your congressional relations have improved slightly, though we know not to expect golf outings or trips to Camp David.

We get upset, however, when – as often happens – the policy is right but carried out in the worst possible way.

Witness the swap for American prisoner Bowe Bergdahl, who was being held by the Taliban. You had to get him out, and the release of prisoners from Guantanamo was the only way. The photo op with his parents was a bad idea. You couldn’t give Congress the 30-day notice required, but you should have personally briefed Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, the heads of the Intelligence committees, as well as Sen. John McCain, the night before the exchange.

And you went to Texas for a fundraiser and didn’t stop to visit the border because, your aides said, you don’t do photo ops. What about the Thanksgiving turkey? The White House always stages events; the premium should be on trying to stay presidential. Bragging that “the bear is loose” when you go off for unscheduled visits to restaurants or allowing senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer to sound the impeachment alarms isn’t elevating.

On the big issues, there’s good news on the economy. Trumpet it. Too many people are still struggling, but your ambivalence only fuels unjustified public pessimism.

On foreign policy, it seems there are crises everywhere that don’t have a lot to do with U.S. policies. We understand why you’re intervention-shy: Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya offer sobering lessons on the limits of American power. But don’t just react to Russian President Vladimir Putin, take the offensive against him more.

With all due respect, you have to broaden your circle of advisers; the episodes we’ve cited reflect White House insularity.

Mr. President, you still have the biggest megaphone in the world and 900 days remaining to use it. Seize every one. Good luck. We hope we’re there with you.

• Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly the executive editor of Bloomberg News, directing coverage of the Washington bureau.

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