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Sunday, December 4, 2016

WASHINGTON — President Obama got roughed up by the pundit class last week. The question is what lessons he draws from the going-over. Here’s one he should take: The nation’s political conversation has grown stale and many Americans have lost the sense of what he is doing to improve their lives.

You can argue that this perception isn’t fair. The Affordable Care Act, if it’s implemented well, will improve a lot of lives. The economy is adding jobs, not shedding them. The deficit is coming down. Two front-burner initiatives, immigration reform and broader background checks — yes, they’ll be voted on again — really do matter.

But the fact is that the talk in Washington has been dominated by the same stuff we obsessed over in 2010, 2011 and 2012: a monotonous, uninspiring, insider clash over budgets. Even in that context, we barely discuss what government can do that would be helpful (except to air travelers).

Obama’s defenders say that D.C. dysfunction should be laid at the feet of Republicans in Congress who are so invested in his failure that they even vote against things they are for. That’s what Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) says happened on background checks.

Rather than criticize the president, says former chief White House speechwriter Jon Favreau, those who want him to succeed need to hold Republicans in the House and Senate accountable. The president can’t do it by himself, Favreau said in The Daily Beast. He needs help from his supporters.

Well, sure. To pretend that the president can magically get an increasingly right-wing Republican House and Senate contingent to do his bidding is either naive or willfully misleading. The GOP really does hope that blocking whatever Obama wants will steadily weaken him.

But the president also needs to ask himself why even his supporters are growing impatient. His whole budget strategy, after all, is directed almost entirely toward gently coaxing Republicans his way, without any concern as to whether what he is doing is demobilizing the very people he needs on his side now.