How Obama Can Make This Election Matter

Nov. 7 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. chose wisely in electing President Barack Obama to a second term. How much difference his re-election will make is another question: a lot, if one or both parties draw the right lessons; not very much, if they don’t.

For at least a year, conservatively estimated, Congress and the White House have been essentially shut down as campaigning took priority over governing. You’d think an election that cost billions of dollars and an incalculable expense of political effort would have changed something. Yet the U.S. remains a closely divided country, with a president lacking any clear policy mandate, a deadlocked Senate and a House of Representatives still run by the opposing party. As a matter of political arithmetic, the election was an obscenely distended nonevent.

It’s good for the country’s soul that its first black president did not go down to defeat after his first term. And it’s good that there’ll be no Romney administration intent on dismantling health-care reform -- an important achievement which, if implemented well, Americans will eventually come to admire. Mitt Romney or no Mitt Romney, however, health-care reform remains vulnerable to attrition at the hands of a hostile Congress. More generally, defending the status quo just isn’t good enough when you consider the challenges facing the U.S., especially the fiscal challenge.

Dueling Narratives

Much as the idea disgusts both sides, the country still needs Democrats and Republicans to work together -- a task this bitterly fought election has made more difficult. The main problem is that narratives each side uses to justify digging in and refusing to compromise will be easy to frame.

The Democrats won, after all. What else do you need to know? Elections have consequences, as Obama told Republicans in 2009. The economy is bound to strengthen over the next four years, Democrats will calculate, and they’ll be able to take credit. Time is now on their side. Why should the president give ground?

Then again, Republicans won too -- in the House. Speaker John Boehner has noticed this, even if the country hasn’t yet woken up to it. (I watched six hours of election coverage last night. Less than 10 minutes was devoted to the House, co-equal to the president in setting domestic policy. What a strange land this is.) The economy’s prospects aren’t bright, Republicans will reason, and implementing the health-care reform will be a mess, especially if they can help it. In 2016, the party will have a better presidential candidate. (That much, they’ll decide, is obvious. What were they thinking, nominating Romney?) Time is on their side. Why should the Republicans give ground?

Of these two scenarios, the Republican version is plainly the more delusional. Romney was a weak candidate, to be sure, but the party in its present form is all but designed to produce weak candidates: It holds nominating contests among unelectable conservatives, thereby forcing the eventual nominee to try and turn himself inside out to have a chance in the general election. The process offends independent voters twice over and doesn’t even attempt to engage huge swaths of the U.S. electorate.

The party needs to come back to the center, ditch its nativist prejudices and above all embrace the Hispanic Americans who could and should be a natural Republican constituency. Cooperation with Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform could emerge from that self-interested realignment. Let’s be optimistic: That’s one way in which a serious Republican rethink could yield good results for the party and the country.

Another Rethink

Obama’s need to rethink is less pressing -- he’s a two-term president, after all, a truly historic figure. But this was a smaller and meaner victory than he was capable of, and a betrayal of the promises he made in 2008. To realize his ambition of presidential greatness, he needs goals and accomplishments in his second term. He shouldn’t settle for four years of paralysis and disappointment.

He doesn’t need to move as much as the Republican Party, but he does need to move. He can’t say he won this election based on his plan for the next four years, because he doesn’t have one. He ought to put that right -- and his proposals must be calculated to appeal to a broader constituency than the Democratic base. Then he must start exercising the leadership he so conspicuously failed to provide in his first term, making the case for his policies to the public.

The idea would not be to surrender to the Republicans in the House -- the charge that many Democrats will level if Obama does what I’m suggesting. It would be to outwit them. Seriously, how hard can that be? If his opponents can be maneuvered into a deal on Obama’s terms, the U.S. will move ahead and the president will secure his legacy. If they can’t -- and the country understands the fault lies with the Republican Party rather than with the president or his party -- his opponents will suffer the consequences in 2014.

Of course, all this begs the question of what, exactly, Obama should be proposing. Here are two specific suggestions, Mr. President.

First, without delay, propose tax and spending extensions to avoid the fiscal cliff at year’s end. Second, take the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction plan down from the shelf, dust it off, and in a renewed commitment to bipartisanship, make it your own. It’s a shame you didn’t do this in the first place, but voters have given you a second chance. Prove them right and put the U.S. on course for fiscal stability with a better and fairer tax system.

(Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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