The tough road ahead

President Obama accomplished something remarkable Tuesday: He won a second term despite stubbornly high unemployment, painfully slow economic growth and widespread unease about the country’s future. It’s tempting to say that his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, was a weak candidate whose positions on important issues were either too vague or too changeable to persuade voters. But Obama was more than just the better campaigner. He earned reelection by keeping the country from falling into a depression and persuading Congress to enact vital reforms to healthcare and the financial industry. And the path forward he laid out was far more reasonable than Romney’s too-good-to-be-true promise to shrink the deficit while cutting tax rates and pumping more dollars into the Pentagon.

As hard fought as the campaign was, the task of governing this divided country will be even more difficult. The immediate challenge facing Obama is to help defuse a fiscal time bomb that’s set to go off at the end of the year, before the next presidential term begins. That’s when more than $570 billion worth of tax increases and spending cuts are scheduled to kick in automatically, potentially sending the economy back into recession. This “fiscal cliff” is the product of Washington’s repeated failure to come up with a credible long-term plan for closing the enormous federal budget gap caused by the recession, two wars and the Bush tax cuts. Avoiding disaster will require Republicans and Democrats to compromise over issues that have tied this Congress in knots.

The longer-term problem for the president will be coping with the dueling pressures of an economy that’s growing too slowly and a federal debt that’s growing too fast, largely because of the rising cost of Medicare and Medicaid. The economy-spurring solutions traditionally favored by each party -- Democrats want to spend more on jobs programs, Republicans favor cutting taxes to put more money back into private hands -- exacerbate the deficit. Meanwhile, the parties are at loggerheads over how to put Washington’s fiscal house in order.

Had the election produced a sweeping victory for one side as in 2008 or 2010, the winner might have claimed a mandate for his party’s approach to these issues. It didn’t; in fact, Obama became the first president reelected with fewer electoral votes than he won the first time.


Not that Republicans would have recognized any mandate for Obama, any more than Democrats would have for Romney. That’s because too many lawmakers seem to be focused less on governing than on avoiding primary challenges. Such challenges have culled the already small herd of moderate lawmakers, yielding a Congress heavy at the extremes and light in the middle. There are still occasional displays of bipartisan comity, but they don’t translate into sustainable working relationships. The House Republican rank and file has proved particularly difficult to corral, with dozens of members aligned with the “tea party” refusing to be bound by the deals their leaders strike. The result has been a breathtakingly inept Congress, one that flirted repeatedly with shutting down the government and even with stiffing the country’s creditors.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said recently that the disinterest in compromise reflects a hardening of wills at the grass roots. Yes, people say they are eager for the parties to work together -- that’s why Obama ran in 2008 as a “post-partisan” candidate, and why Romney touted his ability as a Republican governor to work with a predominantly Democratic legislature. But as much as people embrace the idea of compromise, Schiff said, “they want the other side to do the compromising.”

The current paralysis in Washington demands the kind of leadership that brings lawmakers out of their foxholes. Obama needs to find a way to convince highly polarized lawmakers that both sides can and should shape major pieces of legislation. That would be a departure from the last four years, when Republicans felt they had no stake in the 2009 economic stimulus package, the healthcare reform legislation or the new financial industry regulations -- even when their ideas were incorporated into the bills, as was the case in healthcare.

The task is complicated by the distance between the two sides on so many crucial issues. On immigration, there’s a seemingly unbridgeable divide over what to do about the millions of people who live here illegally. On climate change, there’s no agreement on the existence of a problem, let alone how to solve it. On Social Security, there’s a bitter split over whether workers should invest all or part of their contributions privately. On environmental regulation, the parties disagree over how to weigh the costs against the benefits. The list goes on and on.

These divisions reflect a fundamental disagreement over what’s holding back the country: Is it government spending and regulation, or is it just the lingering effects of the 2008-09 recession combined with the continuing economic problems around the globe? But there’s also the tension caused by demographic changes. Republicans want to cap federal spending at a “traditional” percentage of the economy, despite the fact that retirees collecting government benefits are making up a steadily growing share of the population. And Democrats are adamant that the government maintain its promise of healthcare and Social Security benefits for those retirees.

Pulling the factions together is a daunting task, but Obama has no alternative. The relentlessly negative campaign, conducted at shocking expense, won’t make that job easier. But even a narrow win gives Obama some political capital; he should spend it now building bridges to the other side.