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President Obama Finding His Footing after the Election (Op-Ed)

President Barack Obama gestures during a news conference in the White House briefing room in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
President Barack Obama at a news conference in the White House briefing room in Washington, D.C., Dec. 7, 2010.
AP Photo
Guest column by Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons, a CBS News contributor

Pundits and commentators have been sounding like the R&B group the O'Jays for two years telling President Obama that he's "got to give the people what they want" - a focus on the economy. Since Election Day, the White House has been doing just that by focusing on jobs and the economy. Progressives may be disappointed by some of Mr. Obama's choices and conservatives are still unsupportive, but moderates and independents appear to like what they have been seeing for the last few weeks.

Just after Election Day in November the President began his new strategy. First he took business leaders to India for a high profile $10 billion announcement of business deals. Then he declined to finish the South Korea Trade deal until he got a better agreement for auto workers. After getting that done, the President headed to North Carolina and challenged the country to a second "Sputnik moment" and invest in the educated workforce, research and development needed to win in the global competition.

Embracing the recent tax cut agreement was the most awkward part of his post-election shift. Democrats who favor economic policies focused on working and middle class Americans have been frustrated by the Bush tax cuts targeted for the wealthy since 2001. It is as hard for Democrats to support Bush's approach on taxes as it would be for the Pope to support a bust of protestant reformer Martin Luther being erected in St. Peter's Basilica. Yet, extending those Bush tax cuts for two years was the price the Republicans exacted to continue unemployment insurance payments, protect the Earned Income Tax Credit, cut payroll taxes and protect students and parents from having the cost of paying for college skyrocket.

Many in Washington originally snickered at the flow of e-mails from the White House listing every mayor, governor or minor potentate who supported the tax package but became apparent the barrage of supportive statements had its intended positive effect. Inviting Bill Clinton to endorse the deal in the White House briefing room was much-needed sugar water to help some Democrats swallow the tough tax deal medicine.

The real impact of tax deal was found in the shifting views of moderate voters. Gallup reported that moderates in both parties supported the two main provisions of the deal, a group Mr. Obama had been losing.

The flip side of focusing intently on the economy is deciding not to talk about other things. On paper the White House has been an avid supporter of the DREAM Act (to help young people brought to the U.S. illegally have a pathway to citizenship) and repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," to end the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the U.S. military. They have issued statements and press releases celebrating and lamenting congressional action, but except for national security topics such as the Af-Pak review and the New Start Treaty, it is hard to find much recent video of Mr. Obama discussing anything other than the economy and Christmas.

The strategy Mr. Obama and his team are employing now should turn voters skeptical of the President's economic policy around if they add two more components. First Mr. Obama needs to lay out his vision for putting the country back on a path to prosperity. I suspect a major reason the DREAM Act failed may be that voters don't perceive that there is a plan to help current citizens achieve the American dream too. It's hard to get people to be generous about adding more chairs to the American table when they suspect the pie we are all eating is shrinking, not growing.

Next, Mr. Obama should lay out his values and principles. Two former Clinton aides reminded me last week that before President Clinton got into the fight with Republicans that shut down the government he had spent months communicating his values. He was for a balanced budget as long as it protected Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment. Once the Republicans were ready to breach that wall the public rallied to Mr. Clinton's side because they knew what they were fighting for.

An overarching message and clear values will help voters make sense of Mr. Obama's recent moves, otherwise they will only see compromise without context. By focusing on improving the jobs numbers, articulating a long-term vision for Americans to reclaim their chance at the American dream and explaining the values he will fight to protect, Mr. Obama can inspire both the independents and liberal Democrats he will need to win in 2012.