The message to President Barack Obama from Tuesday’s election could not have been plainer: Don’t abandon your goals. Change your way of operating.
There will be a temptation to interpret the Democrats’ loss of their House majority and of at least six Senate seats as a rejection of Obama’s first-term agenda, the one on which he was elected in 2008. American voters are not that flighty or unsettled. What happened was that Obama ran into several crises that he and others had not anticipated, and the cumulative weight of those problems ended up frustrating him.
The biggest problem by far was the economy, the virtual collapse of the financial system starting in the autumn of 2008 while George W. Bush was still president. That eased Obama’s path to the presidency but it saddled him with a huge and lingering burden once he was in office. He was also burdened by the legacy of two wars and a backlog of unmet domestic needs, ranging from a dysfunctional health care system to undernourished infrastructure and energy sectors.
Facing all these challenges at once, Obama did what seemed natural. He turned to his outsize Democratic majorities in Congress and said, essentially, “Folks, I need you to fix this.” The Democrats on Capitol Hill were eager to respond, but they did so in the way that they always will. Instead of acting promptly and with discipline, they dallied and used the delays to bargain for better benefits for their constituents and contributors.
What began as a sound economic stimulus, along with health care and energy bills, became a swollen expensive and ineffective legislative monstrosity. Somewhere along the way, Obama lost sight of his campaign pledge to enlist Republican ideas and votes. Maybe they were never there to be had, but he never truly tested it. And the deeper he became enmeshed in the Democratic politics of Capitol Hill, the less incentive there was for any Republican to contribute to his success. Thus, a double setback to the hopes that had been aroused by his election.
Instead of cooperation, the worst kind of partisanship returned. And instead of changing the way Washington operated, he seemed to ratify business as usual. In the end, a paradox: massive public repudiation of the record of a Congress and administration that accomplished large goals, including the passage of major economic measures and a historic health care bill; and the empowerment of a Republican opposition that had done almost nothing to offer alternatives of its own.
What lessons should Obama draw? The worst mistake would be for him to abandon or reject his own agenda for government. If health care is to be repealed, let it be after the 2012 election when he will have a chance to defend his handiwork – not now. Instead, he should return to his original design for governing, which emphasized outreach to Republicans and subordination of party-oriented strategies. The voters have in effect liberated him from his confining alliances with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and put him in a position where he can and must negotiate with a much wider range of legislators, including Republicans.
The president’s worst mistake may have been avoiding even a single one-on-one meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell until he had been in office for a year and a half. To make up, the outreach to McConnell and likely House speaker John Boehner should begin at once and continue as a high priority.
Obama tried governing on the model preferred by congressional Democrats and the result was the loss of Democratic seats and his own reputation. Now he should try governing his own way. It cannot work worse, and it might yield much better results.
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