Tuesday’s election gives President Barack Obama an interesting opening, an unwitting gift from the Senate Republican Leader, Kentucky’s, Mitch McConnell. McConnell said “the only way” for the Republican agenda to succeed was to put someone in the White House who won’t veto their proposals.
That’s throwing down the gauntlet. That’s also a challenge Obama should eagerly choose to counter. Whether Obama will do so is open to doubt. His 2008 campaign pledge to “change the way Washington works” was naïve to begin with. He couldn’t pull it off these past two years. Now he faces an openly hostile Republican majority in the House and a bellicose emboldened GOP minority in the Senate. For him to beat his head against this wall of partisan vitriol would be political foolishness.
Yet, seeing the more superficial aspects of Tuesday’s vote, many voices are calling for Obama to do just that, compromise, work with the Republicans. Sure. But the real question is how.
After Tuesday’s victories, there is no indication so far that Republicans believe they need to cooperate. But they have a problem. They lack any consensus about what to do. They (including leader McConnell) must deal with the likes of fire-breathing Sen.-elect Rand Paul, the sophomoric Libertarian also from Kentucky who wants not to pass laws but to repeal them — health-care, for example.
Here is what the president should do: extend the olive-branch with one hand — already he’s said if there are Republican ideas to improve health-care reform, he’d listen — while holding a whip in the other.
He should hammer home, campaign-style, the salient elements of the financial reform legislation that protect the average citizen and Main Street small busineses. His messaging should be aimed particularly at independent voters, who supported Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 elections, but abandoned them in the November election.
The Republicans successfully used Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a whipping post in their drive to turn out supporters. Obama can use McConnell in the same way. He is smart enough to do it. He has ample communications skills. But is he tough and shrewd enough to do it? He can, if done in the right style, with humor and guile: “Now, Senator McConnell says turning me out of office is the number-one priority. I find that hard to believe when 15 million Americans have no job to go to in the morning. Come on, Senator, le'ts work this out."
Democrats didn’t so much lose many of their election contests as they forfeited them. Many ran from the president, or health-care and financial reform. Not Sen. Patty Murray. Rather than running away from healthcare and financial reform, she stood fast. Rather than ignoring help for her state, she campaigned on her help for veterans, repairs to the leaking Howard Hanson Dam, money to replace the First Avenue South Bridge, and so on. Murray said if re-elected she’d continue working for “our state.”
It helped that she had a weak opponent, Dino Rossi, who offered nothing but canned platitudes: “We’ve got to turn this county in the right direction.” Not even Karl Rove’s millions, however, could stop Murray’s return to office and massive fourth-term influence.
McConnell has fired the first shot of the 2012 election and President Obama should respond in kind. With some new White House staff and a fresh emphasis on both governing well and aggressively setting the terms of the debate, he can revive enthusiasm in his base and win back independents. Democratic values can mesh well with sound management, fiscal discipline, and tough, well-articulated decisions.