Quick — who's the most fearless politician in America? Not the one with whom you most agree. Not the one whose dulcet words and seductive smile best say, You people have no choice but to love me. No, who's the politician who courageously risks his or her career with every provocative proposal — and who doesn't care if multitudes of us flagrantly disagree?
Clues: He lives beyond The Cheddar Curtain. And on Tuesday he decisively won an election.
Scott Walker, the governor so polarizing that TV talking heads have made that adjective part of his name, took office early last year committed to live or die by his agenda for rescuing Wisconsin from deficit spending and dangerous debt. You decide the significance of his introducing his bombastic 2011 legislative package on Feb. 14 — a toxic Valentine, perhaps, to his apoplectic opponents.
And on Tuesday, Walker not only lived, he lived large. He had delivered solutions. We'll pause here for the side debate on whether his style — choose uncompromising or obnoxious, principled or vicious — is one to emulate.
On this we all can agree: Wisconsin's election was a referendum on Walker. All else paled. A traditionally liberal electorate knew he had made mistakes, then decided that, on balance, his policies had helped his state. That conclusion — not whichever Democratic candidate opposed him — sealed Walker's fate.
We invoke Wisconsin not to predict the outcome of the nationwide presidential race, but rather for what it teaches about the sitting president.
On Nov. 6, 2011, when we launched this series of occasional editorials on a defining contest in a divided nation, we didn't anticipate that the election of Nov. 6, 2012, would narrow in scope to a referendum on Barack Obama. But it has.
Yes, the balky U.S. economic recovery and the rise of taxpayer debt (see today's companion editorial) were destined to play large roles, and they have. But over the past seven months, Americans mostly have used these issues as prisms through which to view the one overarching issue of this yearlong campaign cycle: Obama, yes or no. Vote.
We wish the White House understood that Americans won't make their choice because of Bain Capital, or Romneycare in Massachusetts, or whether the Republican nominee transported his dog atop his car. No, the issue is the president.
Like their Wisconsin brethren, other Americans, too, are split on how to move forward. They're judging Obama on how he responds to challenging times. They would allow him some mistakes. But they need to see how he addresses an array of problems — the meltdown of Europe's overspent welfare states, the showdown over Iranian nukes, the rising clamor from both major parties over national security leaks.
In her weekend column, The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan writes that as these tumults build, Americans don't see their president leading; they instead see him dashing between celebrity fundraisers: "He's busy. He's running for president. But why? He could be president now if he wanted to be."
The Obama campaign has settled on an unfortunate strategy of stoking class envy: We'll demonize the rich guy. That message has utilitarian merit but already it's muddled, exhausted.
Even Bill Clinton publicly praises Mitt Romney's "sterling" business credentials — and warns against ending the so-called Bush tax cuts for the same reason Obama cited when he extended them in 2010: Tax hikes could trash a still-fragile recovery.
Maddeningly uneventful months have passed since this page first warned about the cascade of federal tax increases and spending cuts scheduled for January. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke had identified the perils of this "massive fiscal cliff." Major employers often tell us they wouldn't risk major job creation right now. They can't tell how these threats, plus rising debt at all levels of government, will affect them.
Members of Congress also haven't steered America from the fiscal cliff. But none of them is the president of the United States. We don't know why Obama isn't locked away with House Speaker John Boehner, preparing to jointly declare, "What we need to do is ..." Instead, on Friday, Obama tried to defend the level of job creation on his watch and added, "The private sector is doing fine." Romney retorted by reeling off a broad range of economic statistics, including that 23 million Americans are unemployed, underemployed or labor force dropouts.
The record of Obama's first term is almost complete. But he still has five months to establish that he has answered multiple crises. He needs to convince Americans that he deserves to remain their leader. If he fails, he risks the same outcome as another referendum on an incumbent: Remember that Americans elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 primarily because he was not Jimmy Carter.
On Friday the website RealClearPolitics offered a high-definition view of where the referendum on Barack Obama stands: In recent public opinion polls, an average of 47.4 percent of Americans approve of his job performance. An average of 47.3 percent disapprove.
Your move, Mr. President. A nation divided waits for the solutions-oriented, dare-to-lose leadership that Wisconsin voters convincingly endorsed.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times