In the end, it was an uplifting finish to a small and mean campaign. Mitt Romney was gracious in his heartfelt concession speech and President Obama, in his victory address, delivered the kind of soaring oratory for which he is famous. It suggests that the campaign, run just a little differently, could have enriched the nation’s politics instead of degrading it. Maybe next time.
For now, though, Americans have largely bequeathed themselves what they already had: a deeply divided government that will have to surmount its own defects to accomplish the critical work that awaits. The makeup of the Republican House of Representatives remains essentially unchanged, as does the Democratic Senate.
But deeply divided doesn’t have to mean dysfunctional. It is possible for people to become bigger than themselves, to understand that others hold different but still legitimate beliefs than they do and to reach across that divide in service of the nation they were elected to serve. It won’t be easy, given the corner in which the Republican Party has painted itself.
The burden is on Obama to lead. He will need to coax Republicans – and also some Democrats – toward the kind of centrist solutions that can address the nation’s problems, the most immediate of which is January’s “fiscal cliff,” which holds the potential to kick the nation back into recession. That leadership won’t come easily, either, because Obama still harbors all of the faults he did before the election.
A primary one that played out in at least two critical ways is a failure to establish useful relationships within Congress and within the business community.
Obama lacks the gregarious nature of successful presidents like Ronald Reagan and also hasn’t demonstrated the willingness to play the kind of hardball that served Lyndon Johnson well. Obama needs some combination of those skills to make his second term more productive than the first.
And, as a president who never spent any serious time working in the private sector, he has been unable to forge ties with leaders in the business community. That, too, is a critical need as Obama looks to reduce the size of the gaping federal budget deficit without harming a fragile economic recovery.
But it’s not all up to the president. Senate Republicans will have to outgrow their destructive habit of filibustering every measure the president supports and, in the House, leaders of the Republican majority will have to figure out how to put a leash on their Mad Hatter tea party members, who would cheerfully wreck the economy rather than compromise with Democrats.
Obama and Congress already know where to start. The path was laid out for them two years ago by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, informally known as the Simpson-Bowles commission.
That panel, which Obama created, laid out a path toward fiscal responsibility that neither the president nor Congress would endorse. Republicans and Democrats, alike, fled from its prescriptions of reduced spending and increased taxes, but Simpson-Bowles remains the only way to secure the broad political buy-in necessary for the painful work that awaits.
With re-election behind him, Obama may now have the flexibility to move on matters that could anger his base. As a practical matter, though, he will probably have only one year to accomplish anything difficult. Come 2014, Congress will become timid as midterm elections approach, and after that Obama will see his influence wane as the 2016 presidential campaign begins.
So he needs to move quickly, starting now on the critical problem of the fiscal cliff and moving into next year on other Gordian matters, including Medicare, Social Security, immigration, the environment and more. Congress may or may not follow, but it absolutely won’t unless the president takes the lead.