DANA MILBANK: Try pivoting to Dubya’s play

WASHINGTON – If President Barack Obama can stick to his guns, he will win his October standoff with Republicans.

That’s an awfully big “if.”

This president has been consistently inconsistent, predictably unpredictable and reliably erratic. Consider the events of Thursday morning:

Obama gave a rousing speech in suburban Washington, D.C., in defense of Obamacare, on the eve of its implementation. “We’re now only five days away from finishing the job,” he told the crowd.

But before he had even left the room, his administration let slip that it was delaying by a month the sign-up for the health care exchanges for small businesses.

It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was enough to trample on the message the president had just delivered.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has had great difficulty delivering a consistent message. Supporters plead for him to take a position – any position – and stick with it. His shifting policy on confronting Syria was the most prominent of his vacillations, but his allies have seen a similar approach to the Guantanamo Bay prison, counterterrorism and climate change. Obama will change his mind and leave them standing alone.

Now come the budget showdowns, which could define the rest of his presidency. Republican leaders are trying to shift the party’s emphasis from the fight over a government shutdown to the fight over the debt-limit increase, where they have more support. A new Bloomberg National poll found that Americans, by 2-to-1, disagree with Obama’s view that Congress should raise the debt limit without any conditions.

But Obama has a path to victory.

The Bloomberg poll also found that Americans think lawmakers should stop trying to repeal Obamacare.

To beat the Republicans, Obama might follow the example of a Republican, George W. Bush.

Whatever you think of what he did, he knew how to get it done: by simplifying his message and repeating it, ad nauseum, until he got the result he was after.

Obama instead tends to give a speech and move along to the next topic.

In the debt-limit fight, Obama already has his note: He will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States.

That’s as good a theme as any; it matters less what the message is than that he delivers it consistently. Happily for Obama, Republicans are helping him to make the case by being publicly belligerent.

Even if his opponents are making things easier for him, Obama still needs to stick to his message. As in Syria, the president has drawn a red line by saying he won’t negotiate with those who would put the United States into default. If he retreats, he will embolden his opponents and demoralize his supporters.

Follow syndicated columnist Dana Milbank at danamilbank@washpost.com.