President Obama and Mitt Romney didn’t deliver their postelection speeches until early Wednesday morning, Eastern time. By then only the hardiest political buffs were likely to be watching. But their remarks deserved prime-time attention.
That’s because both the winner and loser graciously put country over partisanship and urged Americans to come together.
Mr. Obama, reelected to a second term, vowed to begin “the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward.”
He said he was “looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together.”
Despite an election campaign filled with images of red states and blue states, he said, Americans are “not as cynical as the pundits believe.... We are and forever will be the United States of America.” He invited Mr. Romney to the White House to discuss how they might work together to move the country forward.
Romney, though obviously deeply disappointed by his narrow defeat, was equally gracious.
“At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work,” he said. “We look to Democrats and Republicans in government at all levels to put the people before the politics.”
He also twice urged Americans to pray on behalf of the president, including that he “will be successful in guiding our nation.”
How can these lofty words be converted into badly needed actions?
The “fiscal cliff” facing Congress at the end of the year provides an urgent starting point. Unless Congress and the president act, automatic tax hikes and budget cuts that threaten to plunge the country back into recession will go into effect.
With Democrats in control of the White House and Senate, and a Republican majority in the House, neither party can solve this emergency alone. Nor does either really want to.
Major decisions will have to be made on how to cut costs, decisions that almost certainly will be unpopular with many Americans. Can national defense bear some of the cuts in an age when having the best technology trumps having the most planes, ships, or personnel? Can Social Security be curtailed in a way that won’t destroy its role as an indispensable source of income for many retirees? Can Medicare undergo a make-over, cutting costs while ensuring seniors still receive necessary care?
Both parties already agree that, over the long term, swollen budget deficits must be reduced in order to keep the US on sound fiscal footing. Obama and Democrats say some new sources of revenue, such as raising taxes on the wealthy, are a necessary and logical part of the formula. Republicans have widely taken a pledge to not support any tax hikes.
But the only way to avoid the fiscal cliff is if each party is willing to grab the hand of the other and prevent the fall.
What can the president do? It’s time for his best “charm offensive.” He can bring leaders of both parties to Camp David for heart-to-heart, off-the-record talks. This is not a time to scold but to listen and seek solutions.
He can explain to the American people how important avoiding the fiscal cliff is to their own well-being and urge them to tell their representatives in Congress to not permit it. He must put every part of the budget on the table and live up to his rhetoric that he’s someone willing to compromise.
The GOP must do the same, and put its “no new taxes” pledge on hold for the sake of the country. A compromise plan to avert the fiscal cliff that includes spending cuts that are far larger than the size of any new taxes, for example, would be in line with the broad Republican goal of reducing the size of government. The fiscal cliff's significant danger demands this kind of bold, independent action for the greater good.
If the president and Congress work together to come up with a plan that is fair to all Americans, and together explain why any hardships it may bring are necessary, Americans will take it in stride. They’ve had to make tough budget cuts in their own households. They’ll understand.
Solving this crisis could lift the spirits of Americans, showing them that their elected leaders are able to move beyond bickering and act decisively on their behalf. Each party’s image might be burnished.
And both parties just might like the benefits so much they would try it again.