Bloodied by Tuesday's election, Barack Obama can still achieve the grand objectives that once captivated Americans across the political spectrum. He can still unite this fractured country. He can still coax politicians from opposing camps to resolve the massive problems that America must resolve.
He just can't make headway toward those goals while president.
In that job, Obama's skills have hardly mattered, including his unflappable temperament, his keen intellect, his desire to accommodate conflicting views, his gift for words, and his history of bringing diverse people together. Yet those are the very traits that ideally qualify him to bridge the differences between liberals and conservatives, between the American people and their government. Indeed, as an Illinois state senator, Obama had unusual insight into how to nudge politicians to resolve problems rather than fight over them.
But as long as he's president, Obama will fail at his greatest aspirations, because the Republicans clearly intend to derail and demean him. The Republicans captured the House by portraying Obama and his agenda as threats to the American way of life. Why would the Republicans stop now, with the White House and Senate within reach in 2012? Having won over millions of voters by painting Obama as hazardous to America's future, why would the GOP risk alienating those voters by meeting the president halfway?
Some pundits respond that the Republicans will have to show voters they can govern responsibly by working with Obama. But when the GOP last had power, from 2001 to 2006, did they act responsibly on government spending, Iraq, reducing our dependence on foreign oil or climate change? Didn't appeasing their voters matter more than governing? (Disclosure: I'm nonpartisan. Both major parties strike me as irresponsible much of the time, each in its own way.) This year, the GOP platform vowed to balance the budget while slashing taxes but without proposing changes in Social Security, Medicare or defense. Hardly a responsible stance on the very issue the GOP claims is most crucial. And who will the Republicans seek to blame for not coming close to this contradictory goal, if not Obama?
A few top Republicans have even trumpeted their imminent power to inundate the White House with subpoenas and thereby paralyze Obama's ability to govern.
Democratic lawmakers have, in turn, seen that backing Obama has driven many independent voters into the Republican camp. Many Democrats will thus be leery of supporting Obama's initiatives again.
What, then, can Obama hope to achieve in his tenure as president? A rational energy policy? A realistic path to taming the deficit? Education reform on the scale this country requires? Sensible overhaul of immigration?
Not likely. Yet Obama is publicly saying it can be done, apparently assuming that most members of Congress genuinely want to solve the nation's problems.
As long as Obama believes that, his frustrations will mount, because most lawmakers are mainly determined to convince voters that the other party is more noxious. To nearly every legislator, that's a higher priority than solving our nation's problems. Just look at any campaign ad.
Indeed, in this last election, who advocated realistic solutions for balancing the budget, for slashing our addiction to foreign oil or for educating our school children to world standards? The handful who did were massively outnumbered. Obama himself, in 2008, downplayed how he intended to tackle these problems. Obama ran on his personal strengths and sound bites such as "Yes, We Can." He apparently realized that he couldn't make a winning case for his approach to these issues -- not in the time span most voters would listen.
Lawmakers can't make that case either. They don't benefit by advocating genuine solutions to divisive issues. So instead of pushing for realistic solutions, most lawmakers devote their energy to undercutting their opponents, to painting the other party as dangerous, incompetent or corrupt.
Obama's presidency was therefore headed for the rocks from day one. It still is. But just as it took Obama months after his inauguration to accept that the Republicans had far more desire to undercut him than to negotiate with him, it may again take him a while to face that reality. This time, he is likely to end up far more disheartened.
Will Obama therefore give up his grand ambitions? Hopefully not, because Obama is one of the rare people with the interpersonal and communication skills sufficient to reach them.
He has also had a crucial insight. As an Illinois state senator, Obama introduced a bill to change the state's elections so voters would no longer need to choose the lesser of two evils. Obama proposed, instead, that each voter be asked to rank the candidates for each office: a first choice, second choice, third choice and so on. With this kind of ballot, if two candidates in a particular contest are maligning one another, a typical voter is likely to pick another candidate -- one taking a more substantive approach -- as his/her first choice. If the voter is concerned that his top pick will not garner enough votes to win, he/she can make additional choices. The more choices a voter makes the higher the odds that one of them will win.
As a result, in cities that use this kind of "preferential" election -- San Francisco, Minneapolis, Oakland and a few others -- the winners tend to be candidates who campaign on positive agendas. Slinging mud tends to be a losing strategy.
Why, then, doesn't Obama advocate preferential elections for Congress? Perhaps because they don't go far enough. The San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, has lamented that even lawmakers elected by this new method often focus on minor issues rather than major ones.
Fortunately, preferential voting comes in many forms. With one version, a typical lawmaker faces so much competition for his/her seat that, to win reelection, he has to convince his constituents that he has made significant progress on the issues critical to them. The evidence for this is at GenuineRepresentation.org/Congress
Still, Obama may not agree that this proposal -- let's call it "preferential 3.0" -- would goad lawmakers to work as constructively as these times require. Even so, Obama does know that basic preferential voting would encourage candidates to campaign on more constructive agendas than now. So Obama could tweak his original proposal to produce the kind of politics he thinks America now needs.
What, then, is stopping Obama from advocating preferential elections for Congress? It's probably that nearly every lawmaker would fear losing his/her own seat. So they would all -- Democrats included -- turn on Obama. He would have no allies left on Capitol Hill. Every proposal from him would be dead on arrival.
How, then, can Obama fulfill his hopes of healing our fractured country? He can't -- not from the Oval Office.
So why would he run for reelection in 2012? He can be president for one more term only. Why, then, would he use up that one term being exploited by his enemies to further divide this country? Why spend that one remaining term enduring the toxic atmosphere that pervades Washington while achieving, at best, mere scraps of his agenda? And after all that, most Americans would still hold Obama personally responsible for all the bad things that happened on his watch, just as voters have held him to account for today's bleak economy.
Why would Obama suffer through all of that -- just to fade into history as a failed president? Instead, by leaving the White House after his first term, he would be free to use all of his talents to repair our broken government. Obama could use his millions of followers to promote election reforms that would fix our crumbling civic life.
He could justify his actions to the public by saying: "I am taking the most direct route to achieving the goals that made me seek this office. If I succeed, I will run for this office again."
Could Obama succeed? Voters have used referendums to adopt preferential voting in several cities already. Obama would therefore be likely to succeed in convincing voters in troubled cities to adopt a version of preferential voting that had even greater benefits. In states that allow referendums, Obama would also have good odds of convincing voters to demand the same change in their state governments.
If that campaign worked in just a few places, concerned Americans elsewhere would then see whether the resulting lawmakers were indeed motivated to work out constructive solutions to chronic problems. If so, Obama would have ample ammunition for convincing citizens across the country to demand similar changes in their own cities and in their state capitals.
Congress would, of course, be a much bigger challenge. But what if, as a result of Obama's efforts, Americans of all stripes saw that some form of preferential voting goads politicians to resolve critical problems -- instead of waging ideological warfare over them? Those Americans -- if there were enough of them -- could vote out any incumbent who wouldn't adopt preferential elections for Congress. For the House, one piece of legislation would do the job. The Constitution is no obstacle. For the Senate, some versions of preferential voting (not all) could be achieved by legislation alone.
So within a decade or two, we could have a Congress intent on resolving our gravest problems. At that point, Obama would still be young enough to run for president again, but this time with far more confidence that his personal strengths would be an asset in bridging the divisions between left and right, between the American people and their government.
A long difficult road. But the road that Obama is on now is headed for failure -- for him and the American people. If Obama still has the hopes that have fueled him thus far, he has a better alternative. As he once wrote to his daughters, "America is great not because it is perfect but because it can always be made better -- and . . . the unfinished work of perfecting our union falls to each of us."
Obama has a unique opportunity to perfect our union on a scale we badly need, an opportunity he should grab -- for his sake and for ours.
Sol Erdman is president of the Center for Collaborative Democracy and co-author of The Cure for Our Broken Political Process: How We Can Get Our Politicians to Resolve the Issues Tearing Our Country Apart.