Barack Obama is trapped in ominous economic circumstances, partly of his own making, and time is running out for his presidency. The character traits that got him to the White House—the cool style of avoiding sharp-edged conflict and mediating political differences—threaten now to make him a one-term president. Character is destiny. At this point, only Obama can save Obama, but to do that he must change himself.

This grim prognosis may sound premature, but bad economic news confirms what we have been warning for months: the president’s strategy is failing. People know this. The longer Obama persists in claiming things are on the right track, the more he damages his credibility. Severe economic distress is what defeats incumbent presidents (cf. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter).

It’s already too late for Obama to engineer an economic turnaround. Even if he proposes major new legislation, the GOP is sure to block it. Cynical Republicans are quite aware that what’s bad for the economy is good for them, so disregard their pious claims. They are determined to make things worse by cutting government spending, although the economy desperately needs more aggregate demand. Even more bizarre, Obama is collaborating in this effort, making nice with enemies who have their hands on his throat.

That is what must change if Obama is to save himself. He has to force his opponents out into plain view and turn their vicious behavior into a political asset for himself. He can achieve this by demonstrating concretely whose side he is on. First, he must acknowledge that although his original stimulus helped avert a depression, it failed to produce a robust recovery. Next, he must propose a battery of emergency measures that deliver directly to citizens who are suffering—job creation, foreclosure avoidance, prosecution of fraudulent bankers and other interventions that will help ordinary citizens survive the hard times. He shouldn’t overpromise on results, already a mistake of his presidency. But he should make it clear that he intends to help people stay above water, however long the troubles last.

This activism might seem out of character for Obama, but great leaders change in adverse circumstances. This president does not seem to understand that he gains clarity with voters by explaining the true nature of his opponents, by explicitly sharpening the differences, by promising folks he will fight for them. No need for demagoguery—simply stick to the facts. Obama made a gentle thrust in this direction when he said the GOP plan to gut Medicare departed from American values. Republicans howled, but the accusation resonated with the people. We need to hear more—much more.

An emergency recovery agenda would change the subject from deficit reduction to comforting citizens in desperate circumstances. It would also reanimate the possibility of Congressional action. Do Republicans want to oppose these humane measures? Very well, let’s have some roll calls. Suddenly, they would face hard choices. Let’s test their coldblooded convictions with the public.

A galaxy of progressives are on the case, launching grassroots actions to build popular pressure for renewal. A nationwide Rebuilding the American Dream Tour, sponsored by the Progressive Congress Action Fund, is scheduled for this summer. The activists should warn the White House that Obama faces a growing army of discontented voters. Our advice to the demonstrators: don’t be subtle.