It will be tempting for the White House to feign a course correction and bipartisanship, but not really change course.
The president, for instance, might refuse to see the elections as a referendum on his leadership, justifying that outlook by exit polls that showed equal dissatisfaction with both parties. And, after all, these were races for congressional, state, and local offices, not for the Oval Office.
Mr. Obama might also see the country as more disappointed by the economy, than by his stewardship, though he said today he took responsibility for failure to grow jobs more quickly. He might also view the House turnover to the GOP as a distorted public statement – the result of a Republican base that was simply more fired up than his own party.
There’s an element of truth in all of these conclusions. But if the president focuses on them, he’ll miss the larger truth that this “shellacking,” as he put it, was also a referendum on Obama Part I.
A majority of voters, 54 percent, disapproved of the job he’s doing, and a similar percent said his policies will harm the country, according to exit polls. And voters who sided with Obama two years ago – independents and women – sidestepped to the GOP this time.
With Republican John Boehner as the presumptive House speaker and with substantial GOP gains in the Senate, Obama will have to take a lesson from Bill Clinton, who moved to the middle after the Democrats lost both houses in the midterms of 1994.
President Clinton was often ridiculed for his small steps in governing – remember his push for school uniforms? But divided government has a way of forcing a president to reduce his stride.
Obama campaigned as a big-ideas, transformational president. Now he’ll have to take another approach. He acknowledged today that there’s more than one way of “skinning the cat” on climate-change legislation. He’ll need to focus more on energy and less on climate; rely more on the states and private industry, and less on the federal government.
He’s also unlikely to make headway with sweeping immigration reform, another campaign promise. But two more years to prove his credentials as an enforcer of immigration law could make reform easier in the long run.
Big ideas are still possible under divided government; they just require compromise. Clinton and Republicans worked together for welfare reform and a balanced budget agreement. George W. Bush worked with Democrats on the landmark No Child Left Behind Act.
Obama could reach out to the other side by returning to a Lincolnesque “team of rivals” approach and nominating a Republican to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he vacates that job.
The biggest problems on the minds of voters are the federal deficit and jobs. The president can lead the way on jobs by compromising with this lame-duck Congress on the Bush-era tax cuts, which expire at the end of this year. He seemed open to a tax compromise at his press conference today. The quicker that certainty returns to the tax code, the better for the economy.
The deficit, and beyond that, the debt, will require heavy lifting. Here, Obama could become the transformational president he wants to be. He should not wait for Congress, but move first with substantial proposals to reform costly entitlements – Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Other presidents have been burned by touching these third-rail issues. But in December, Obama will have the report of his bipartisan debt commission to provide him political cover. Oddly, the tea party could help him, too – its No. 1 priority is reducing government spending. The looming threat of the financial markets also makes this time different from others.
Of course, common ground can’t be found without the participation of the opposing party. Republicans are right when they acknowledge that Americans see them as a second chance, not the second coming. Now that they share responsibility for governing, they must shoulder it and not work only to defeat Obama in 2012.
One thing Republicans should not do: try to totally overturn Obama’s health-care law without offering a viable alternative of their own that includes some of the more popular features of the current law. A danger also exists that another health-care debate could again consume Congress.
Republicans should also beware of the power plays, earmarks, and corruption that undid them during the GOP era of Tom DeLay as House majority leader.
Lastly, the president needs to adjust his tone. That’s a tough thing to ask, actually. “I am what I am,” the saying goes.
But for the past two years, what Americans have heard mostly from the president’s bully pulpit is a somber defense of his policies and a complaint that somehow people just don’t get how hard it is to turn this economy around.
His record on the economy is defensible. As criticized as his use of the Bush TARP money and the stimulus package may have been, both measures very likely saved the country from another Great Depression (along with steps by the Federal Reserve).
At his press conference today, Obama said that whenever he gets out of the White House and interacts with Americans, he feels upbeat about the future. “The American people always make me optimistic,” he said.
Lay some of that optimism on us, Mr. President.