The circus that opened this week in Washington is no mere spectacle; it ought to be taken seriously. For as we learned in the summer of death panels, the most far-fetched leaps of fantasy can become a powerful political force when they dominate otherwise sparse news cycles. Indeed they attract attention—and shape perception—precisely because of their outlandish and instantly memorable nature.

Here's how the show will unfold this time—and why Barack Obama and the Democrats have to make sure they rewrite the script.

Until the State of the Union message, the Senate is going home and the Republicans in the House are going to the mattresses—The Godfather’s term for starting a gangland war. (In some cases, they're literally going to the mattresses, since a number of tea-soaked members are enjoying fully subsidized public housing by sleeping in their government offices.) As December was the session of lame ducks, this is the season of elephants performing stunts.

The show kicked off with a droning, center-ring recitation of the entire Constitution as members who felt forced to be present fidgeted on the House floor. (I wonder if those who have defended torture and racial profiling were discomforted hearing the Bill of Rights.)

The reality of a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president won't deter the piece de résistance of the spectacle, the House's scheduled repeal of health reform on Jan. 12. Repeal will never reach Barack Obama's desk for a veto because Senate majority leader Harry Reid—yes, he's still there, thanks to the midterm lunacy of the Tea Party—won't even bring it to a vote.

The elephants must not be allowed to run wild

But the Republicans aren't just firing duds. Some of their rat-a-tat-tat—including their imposition of procedural rules more draconian than the ones they reviled under Democratic control—will fasten an iron grip on debate and process in the House. Democrats won't be able to offer amendments to the defenestration of health care reform, a restriction that frees GOP members from having to endure votes on the actual provisions of the law, most of which are highly popular.

The larger danger of the circus is that it could reshape the political landscape for months or even years. Democrats have to fight back, not assume as they did (and I did) during August 2009 that the public would see Republicans' rank distortions and ideological excesses as a transparent political ploy. When Republicans pursue their vague and slippery demands for budget cuts—they retreated from their pledge to cut $100 billion before the session even opened—Democrats must expose them for plotting to eviscerate education, medical research, and other essential measures. And in the face of proposals to defund the regulatory system and financial reform, Nancy Pelosi and company have to make a persistent, public case that this is a license, purchased with special-interest campaign contributions, to return to the reckless financial speculation that brought on the Bush economic collapse of 2008.

In short, Democrats can't let these inmates have the run of the asylum. Democrats in the House, Senate, and White House must all defend and advance the case for the hard-won changes of the past two years—and also for the next two. That's the fundamental task—and it can't wait for the State of the Union message on Jan. 25. This will be the most important State of the Union since Bill Clinton's triumphant turn in 1998, just days after the Monica Lewinsky scandal struck, when a rapt country watched to see whether the president could still be presidential.

More than ever, Obama requires a narrative that not only counters but transcends the Republican grab bag of nostrums and clichés. The president can, and should, once again offer to reach across the aisle—not as a vapid procedural ideal but as a challenge to do what's right for the middle class and the country.

On the central issue of the economy, he has to tell a compelling story: We stopped a descent into a second Great Depression in 2009, but that's the beginning, not the end, of recovery. Obama needs the courage and candor to argue for a mid- and long-term strategy to rein in the deficit, while warning that cutting too deeply, too soon, on too many investments that create jobs and spur growth would jeopardize the recovery and paradoxically jack up deficits. In the face of an engrained popular mythology, truth telling here isn't easy. But it's time to treat Americans as adults, not the imprisoned idolaters of an illusion that slashing spending and demand in an economy in which spending and demand are still weak can miraculously lift us to prosperity.

The president doesn't have to assail Republicans by name; he does have to show the country a coherent way forward to prosperity first, and then to lower deficits, which will be best achieved as they were in the 1990s by robust growth. This narrative has the additional advantage of pinning responsibility on the GOP if the organ-grinder Congress succeeds in creating economic failure.

Jobs, jobs, jobs will have to be job one in the State of the Union. At the same time, the president also has to address health reform, both to send an unequivocal message that he would veto repeal and to explain the benefits of reform in concrete terms. Indeed, repeal would widen the deficit the GOP denounces—by $230 billion over 10 years. Health care then is an economic issue too—and Democrats can never again cede the dialogue, which is how they lost the debate last year even while winning the bill.

Even beyond national security, there will inevitably be topics in the State of the Union that don't neatly fit the economic narrative. The president shouldn't shy away from immigration reform; it's not only right on the merits, but riles tea-tinged Republicans to traffic in prejudice, driving Hispanic voters toward Democrats.

Above all else though, Jan. 25 will present an opportunity to explain and embed a new story on jobs and growth. The speech can't be a one-off; the president will have to take the narrative out to the country again and again. Even when he speaks to the Chamber of Commerce, he has to make the same case—as a practical imperative of policy-making.

Ahead is a major battle over raising the federal debt ceiling, where Republicans could get more economic trouble than they wish for and more blame than they can endure if they trigger a government default, a suspension of government programs including Social Security, or a market crash of 2008 proportions. House Speaker John Boehner obviously doesn't want this—or a repeat of the Newt Gingrich shutdown of the government—but he has to contend with an angry and unreasoning base.

For now, he's giving them three weeks of spectacle. Maybe afterwards, the GOP will settle down to governing—or maybe not, given the fervor of House members more wedded to fantasies than facts. But spectacle has its limits. As FDR once said, "We have all seen many marvelous stunts in the circus, but no performing elephant can turn a handspring without falling flat on its back."