The Republicans' midterm triumph obviously is a demoralizing blow to President Obama, but it's also a second chance. Unlike the scores of Democratic lawmakers who lost their seats, he has an opportunity to win back voters in the volatile center whose oscillations are keeping both parties on a short political leash.
How? By reclaiming the "postpartisan" reformer mantle that appealed so powerfully to these voters during his 2008 presidential campaign, and by crafting a more compelling plan to unleash U.S. economic dynamism.
Lest we forget, Obama ran as an outsider who promised to confront the dysfunctional political culture of Washington. While he's redeemed other key campaign pledges, like ending torture, winding down the Iraq war, and passing comprehensive health care reform, he's done little to change the way Washington works.
While independents overwhelmingly (by 15 points) backed Republicans, exit polls suggest they didn't vote for the Tea Party's radically libertarian philosophy, or for more political gridlock. In fact, they are defined in large part by their hostility to polarization and strident partisanship in Washington, and by their preference for performance over ideology.
Obama can begin to reestablish his standing with these voters by proposing structural fixes to our broken political system. And he can put the anti-government party on the spot by challenging Republicans to join him in reforming, rather than disabling, government.
Don't mistake this for the familiar argument that Obama should "return to the center." His challenge is not to reposition himself ideologically, it's to break an ideological and partisan deadlock that's paralyzing our government. For example, Obama could press for the federal clean elections law championed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D- Ill.) that would finance Congressional campaigns with small donations matched by public contributions. He could try to work out a deal with Republicans to limit filibusters, which may now become a weapon in the hands of Senate Democrats (after all, he still has the veto). Or he could propose a lifetime ban on lobbying by ex-members of Congress and their staffs.
Yes, fixing a broken political system entails working harder to find common ground with Republicans and restoring a civil tone in Washington, as Obama promised today in his post-election press conference Wednesday. With Republicans firmly in control of the House of Representatives, he doesn't have any choice but to search for consensus and compromise -- not unless he wants to put his presidency on hold for the next two years.
The flip side, of course, is that House Republicans can no longer claim powerlessness as an excuse for indulging in a politics of pure obstructionism. It's doubtful they'll be able to get away with serving up the usual ideological platitudes about limited government and fiscal probity. Now they'll either have to share responsibility for governing with Obama, or come up with their own ideas for solving the nation's urgent problems.
That could get ugly, at least at first. Fresh off their big victory, Republicans seem to be brimming with Tea Party hubris. Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner vowed this morning to make repealing "Obamacare" a top priority when the next Congress convenes in January. It's tempting to say "bring it on," because this would be a monumental mistake for him, an ideological overreach akin to Newt Gingrich's attempts to shut down the federal government after the 1994 midterm. It would embroil the country again in another deeply divisive cage-match over health care reform, even as independents are yelling "focus on the economy" at the top of their lungs.
By developing a new blueprint to spur economic innovation and entrepreneurship, Obama can seize the political initiative, force Republicans to react to him, and quite possibly highlight significant fissures in GOP ranks. On deficit reduction, tax cuts, education, and immigration reform, Obama faces a similar challenge: bring the debate down from the GOP's ideological nebulae to the concrete policy choices facing the country. He needs to keep pressure on the anti-government party to govern.
In the coming duel with House Republicans, Obama holds many high cards. He commands the bully pulpit, and with it, the opportunity to set the political agenda. He can use the veto to temper and force changes in GOP initiatives, as Bill Clinton did in vetoing welfare reform twice before getting a more progressive version. And if they won't even come out to play, Obama can run against a "do-nothing" Congress just as Harry Truman did in 1948.
As many former presidents could attest, political life is full of second acts. President Obama's is just beginning.
This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.