For Mr. Obama, a rebuke and a chance to right himself

Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 11:02 PM

THE ELECTION of 2000, you may recall, was going to usher in a generation of Republican dominance. The election of 2008 presaged an era, if not an eon, of Democratic rule. So pardon us if we don't overinterpret the results of Tuesday's vote. Particularly when unemployment is approaching 10 percent, incumbents are going to take a beating.

Nonetheless, there's no doubt that the midterm elections represent a sharp rebuke of President Obama, and that many voters meant them that way.

We believe Mr. Obama's first two years were better than he's getting credit for. His policies, including the stimulus and intelligent use of TARP authority, helped avert the Great Depression II that threatened when he took office, though the Federal Reserve also played a key role. His financial reform legislation, paired with deft negotiations on international rules, began to fix weaknesses that allowed this financial crisis to develop. On health care, we had reservations about promising a big new entitlement at a time of such fiscal stress. But Mr. Obama included and fought for elements of reform that, if implemented well, could reduce the rate of growth of health-care costs, which is a prerequisite of fiscal health. Meanwhile, he has prosecuted the war against Islamist terrorism vigorously, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The left faults Mr. Obama for insufficient devotion; the right sees in him a not-so-closet socialist. Both charges are unfounded. The president has been, in domestic policy, a fairly conventional liberal, expanding regulation and social programs where he can (student loans, national service, health care), compromising where he must. There's nothing terrifying about that, but its very familiarity may be a source of his problems: Voters expected something less conventional. They believed, perhaps unrealistically but certainly with Mr. Obama's encouragement, that he could rise above petty partisanship and stale left-right debates. That hasn't happened. The White House blames the opposition for willful noncooperation; Republicans blame the administration for shutting them out from the start. There's truth in both versions, and nothing pretty in the result.

Assessing Tuesday's setback, the White House may decide it needs to double down on a take-no-prisoners, counterattack-every-cable-attack, war-room assault. Pretend to reach out, but only to show the extremism of the other side; some Republicans elected Tuesday surely will oblige. Play at cooperation, but only to mollify independent voters. Paint the opposition as radical and pray for economic recovery: presto, a winning strategy for 2012.

It won't surprise our regular readers that we hope Mr. Obama takes a different tack. The nation's problems are too serious for Washington to waste two years in gamesmanship - and few of those problems can be solved without cooperation across the left-right divide. Republican politicians are irresponsible in pretending at fiscal discipline while supporting $4 trillion (over 10 years) in tax cuts. But the fear of rising debt that animated many Tea Partyers this year is grounded in reality; Mr. Obama could speak to it with a serious program of spending control and deficit reduction. The nation's roads, rails, sewers and water pipes are crumbling; Mr. Obama could again reach out by including the private sector in infrastructure renewal. And so on.

We enthusiastically supported Mr. Obama two years ago, daring to hope for great things. Like many Americans, we've had our disappointments, in both his policy choices and their execution. But Tuesday's election need no more write an epitaph for his administration than 2008 doomed Republicans to eternal minority status.

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