The votes are in and President Obama has a second term with a virtual guarantee that he will again face a gridlocked Congress. So what is a president to do?
Governor Romney and a good many pundits are calling for him to reach out to the same Republican opponents who made a pact after his first term election to do everything in their power to assure the failure of his presidency—and persistently voted as a solid bloc to fulfill that promise.
Some suggest it may be different in President Obama’s second term because he will not be running again. They forget President Clinton’s second term, when his impeachment on the flimsiest of grounds became the top priority of congressional Republicans.
When Senator Obama won the election that put him in the White House, I wrote a national address I hoped he might deliver as president outlining policies for a new economy equal to the challenges of the 21st century. Since he did not choose to deliver it during his first term, I was thinking I might dust it off and put forth a similar proposal for his second term.
Reading it now, I realize that most of what I proposed requires congressional action that will never happen so long as congress remains captive to my-way-or-the-highway extremists. President Obama will have his hands full simply getting a budget bill through Congress that is adequate to keep the country running and avoid a financial default. If he succeeds in this, it will be a heroic accomplishment.
America's Deficit Attention Disorder
Money is the least of our problems. It’s time to pay attention to the real deficits that are killing us.
That said, there is critical need to move the nation forward to address urgent questions mostly or totally absent from the political debates of this now-past election cycle—including climate change, extreme inequality, and the corruption of our political and electoral processes. Realistically, the next congress is not going to move us forward on any of these issues, no matter what President Obama does.
Any progress on these matters at the federal level will depend on using the considerable powers of the administrative branch of government—and President Obama should give high priority to doing so. That said, I do believe that most Americans are fed up with the scorched-earth politics of ideological extremists with deep-pocket sponsors.
There is a need and opportunity for President Obama to reach across political lines to launch a national conversation that involves all Americans, irrespective of political affiliation, interested in addressing the three defining challenges of a 21st-century world:
- Balancing human consumption with the generative capacity of Earth’s biosphere while;
- Providing every person with the opportunity for a healthy, secure, and meaningful life; and
- Achieving true democracy in which every person’s voice counts.
This conversation has the potential to force a realignment of both of America’s major political parties and might well lead, over time, to a significant restructuring of America’s political institutions to create effective space for a far greater range of voices.
A second-term President Obama can afford to take the lead in engaging such a conversation specifically because he will never again be campaigning for re-election. It could be his most significant legacy for America and for the world.