10:52 PM CST, November 6, 2012
President Barack Obama won re-election yesterday thanks to a narrow edge in a swath of key battleground states. His prize: another four years as the leader of a sharply divided nation facing a series of seemingly intractable problems, chief among them the economy, the debt and employment. The first order of business must be to avoid the fiscal cliff looming over the country at year's end that will mandate tax increases and deep, across-the-board cuts to defense, entitlement programs and domestic spending programs unless he and Congress can agree on a way forward.
Mr. Obama needs to act immediately to persuade Congress to extend the deadline for sequestration another six months to provide time to avoid the massive damage to the economy and employment these draconian cuts in government would bring about.
Another close presidential election — accompanied by split control of Congress, with Republicans maintaining control of the House and Democrats holding the Senate — might lead many to the conclusion that President Obama doesn't have much of a mandate. Quite the contrary; he can have a robust mandate if he chooses to use it. The lesson of this election and Mr. Obama's election in 2008 is that Americans are hungry for big solutions to the nation's problems, but that they don't believe that the stale platforms of either party, dominated by the interests of the far left and far right, are the answer.
Mr. Obama won a decisive victory in 2008 on the promise of a new kind of politics, but after four years of allowing himself to become entangled in the entrenched partisan warfare of Congress, he faced a nation skeptical of his ability to bring change. Mitt Romney's transformation into a "severe conservative" got him through the GOP primaries, but it was killing his chances in the general election — until he made a sharp tack to the center, starting with the first presidential debate and continuing until Election Day. There is a lesson here.
Mr. Obama might imagine that without the unifying goal of ensuring his defeat, congressional Republicans will be more willing to cut a deal that includes new tax revenues. But they might also conclude that they paid no price for resisting him during his first term and that Mr. Romney's fault was that he was insufficiently conservative.
That possibility was underscored recently when Republican House Speaker John Boehner said in an interview with Politico that his congressional colleagues won't under any circumstances even consider a plan that raises taxes on people making more than $1 million a year. He sent a tweet to the same effect even before all the returns were in last night. Mr. Boehner's comments reflect how tough it would have been even for a Romney presidency to escape the trap of his party's most extreme elements, let alone the problems President Obama will have keeping his campaign promise to increase taxes on individuals earning more than $250,000 a year.
The president, freed from the constraints of re-election, needs to start making some politically bold moves. He should embrace something very much like the Bowles/Simpson deficit reduction plan. He should campaign for it with the same vigor he put into winning a second term in the White House, and he should dare Republicans not to meet him in the political center. He should follow that with a comprehensive immigration reform plan, building on the ideas former President George W. Bush failed to get past his own party. He should start talking about climate change and propose something more than the cap-and-trade regime that Congressional Republicans have already rejected — perhaps a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
We don't need four more years of rehashing the same arguments that brought the nation to the brink of defaulting on its debts during the last four. Success for the president in his second term isn't going to be a matter of persuading a few members of the opposition party to change their minds. It will mean changing the debate entirely. Americans are yearning not for one party or the other to win but for someone to unite us around bold but pragmatic solutions to our problems. That is Barack Obama's mandate.