A choice for Obama: Try leadership

By Fred Hiatt
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 12:00 AM

The moment the polls close on the 2010 election, the 2012 presidential campaign begins.

There's not much President Obama can do about that timetable, if he wants to serve two terms. But he does face a choice on how to shape the campaign, and his next two years of governing.

He will hear a lot of advice to reach out to the strengthened Republican caucus as a tactic, expecting and hoping to be rebuffed. The goal would be to spend the next two years exposing the strengthened opposition as radical, unwilling to compromise and unfit to rule.

Many Republicans will make Obama's job easy, if he chooses this route. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, unlikely to be the most obstructionist among them, recently told National Journal's Major Garrett, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

That is an astonishing admission. Is he not elected to work with the president and fellow senators for the country's welfare?

Obama's recent rhetoric hints at no interest in rising above the partisan fray, either. He urged Latinos to "punish our enemies" on Election Day, and told Republicans, "You can ride with us if you want, but you gotta sit in the back seat."

Still, campaign talk is campaign talk, and on Wednesday another era begins. Is it doomed to be one of paralysis, blame-shifting and mock bipartisanship wielded as a weapon?

There's a second route open to Obama, not guaranteed to succeed but at least not certain to produce cynical failure: presidential leadership. Not vilification of his enemies, and not triangulation on little, poll-tested issues such as school uniforms, but true leadership on the giant challenges facing the nation.

The country is, first and foremost, fighting a war, though you'd hardly know it from the campaigning this fall. Defeating America's enemies will require long-term, difficult engagement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere, lengthy engagements for which Obama has inadequately prepared Americans.

The country also is spiraling dangerously into debt. Unchecked, deficits will depress Americans' standard of living and erode U.S. leadership abroad. The problem is more fixable here than in many nations, in part because our demographics are more favorable (more immigration; a society graying more slowly than in Europe, Japan or China) and our investment climate more welcoming - but it's fixable only if government changes course.

Then there's the entrenched poverty of the black underclass, high levels of unemployment that may or may not be cyclical, decaying infrastructure, inadequate investments in science, a warming climate.

Any of these could dim America's future, none is easily solved, and the 2010 campaigns haven't encouraged the notion that voters are open to difficult solutions. On the other hand, polls show that voters are not satisifed with either party and that the expected Democratic losses Tuesday will hardly be a triumph for Republican ideas.

So what if Obama began actually describing and advocating the hard choices he talked about so much during his presidential campaign? He would tell Democrats that Social Security will go broke without reform and that for America's economy to thrive, its businesses must be able to trade, invest and, yes, even outsource overseas. He would explain to Republicans that tax cuts will not pay for themselves and that businesses must be able to move goods on roads and rails that can't be improved without tax dollars.

A leader would look to cooperate with business, not demonize it. He would tell upper-income Americans that they have to pay more taxes not because they're bad people who caused the recession but because everyone will have to do his part if America is to get well. Cotton farmers, mortgage bankers, ethanol peddlers - no sacred cow would stay sacred. He would reach out to Republicans privately, not in public forums intended to show them up, to see if he could find anyone willing to do business.

I'm not recommending that Obama be naive about his opposition, nor that he sit the American people down, Jimmy Carter-style, for a dose of bad news. But a lot of Americans would welcome a president who sought to rise above the ugliness: business executives who are disappointed but still want Obama to succeed, independent voters who still hope for the change in political climate that he promised in 2008, ordinary people buffeted by forces beyond their control who want straight talk on where the country is headed. They can tell the difference between pretend and real leadership, and between show bipartisanship and attempts at the real thing.

Many would prefer the real thing. It might even help in 2012.


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