I took my 9-year old daughter to vote with me this morning in one of Virginia's bellwether counties; she didn't cast a ballot, so no worries about voter fraud. (I remember going to vote with my dad.) Whenever I vote, I get a burst of excitement and love for my country; I am a romantic when it comes to the majesty of our democracy. This is one trait I hope my daughter inherits.
Whoever wins tonight (and we may not know for a few days) will have little if any time to enjoy the majesty or the victory. Bitter posturing in anticipation of losing has already started on both sides. Some Republicans are arguing that Sandy will be the reason if President Obama wins, and some Democrats are arguing that Election Day dirty tricks by Republicans could rob Obama of victory. (There is some alarming evidence that these kinds of voter suppression efforts are taking place.)
But more than recrimination will limit the celebration. The country faces an immediate test in the fiscal cliff. More perhaps than its precursor, the debt-ceiling debacle, this next round will be definitional for our new president, our Congress and perhaps our ability not just to choose our leaders but have them lead.
Which candidate — Obama or Mitt Romney — would be better positioned as president to restore credibility in our ability to self-govern and put the nation on a more secure economic and fiscal footing?
Let's start with Romney. The answer depends on which Romney becomes president, moderate or conservative Mitt. The former could do great things for America, but as I have argued before, nothing I've seen suggests Romney has the ideological breadth or the political courage to defy Republican orthodoxy. But still: If a pragmatic, problem-solving Romney took office, and he appealed beyond the tea party base that has helped the Republicans win but crippled their ability to govern, we could have the makings of a great president. (I wonder why every recent president seems to make the same mistake: interpreting their narrow victories and mandates to bulldoze the opposition. This gets them only pyrrhic victories.)
But if the "my way or the highway" version of Romney shows up, we will have a confidence-shaking period of gridlock, weakening our democracy further and dooming his presidency. This assumes, of course, some united opposition from Democrats, some willingness not to give in on, for example, the Ryan budget. Of course, Democrats have caved before; it was Democrats who gave Bush his tax cut.
Now how might Obama fare as a second-term president? His campaign, occupied with more pressing matters, did little to inspire confidence that a second term would be more successful than his first. (I am not arguing that his first term was a bust; I thought he did a workman-like job in the face of crazy opposition, but one would have to grade his term with an incomplete.) Many of my friends who support Obama express concern that a second term would be worse. Not just because of the pattern of weaker second terms in presidencies but because the Republicans will be more united than ever in their opposition, burning with revenge from the unthinkable prospect of four more years.
I see it differently. I think a second Obama term would be more successful than his first. He will be unburdened of impossible expectations and hardened by experience. He will be fueled not by reelection but by a search for a legacy, a search that when properly conducted can be a catalyst for national good. And he holds some down-and-dirty practical political cards in the fiscal cliff fight. The Pentagon cuts and tax increases might be easier for him than Republicans to accept. If Republicans and recalcitrant Democrats don't bend to the president, the automatic cuts and tax increases go into effect, and we get a massive reduction in debt. Of course, Obama rightfully would be concerned about the shock to the economy this blunt instrument would likely induce, but he might be able to live with it or fashion it into to something much closer to his liking. In other words, he doesn't have to run for office again, and he can play the game of chicken without that burden.
My hope, of course, is that Obama wins a second term and a second chance today, but I also hope that if Mr. Romney wins, he will defy my expectations and that of millions of others and steer us well. The country needs it.