Thoughts of Gettysburg address and Lincoln as Obama took stage
In 2010 and on Tuesday, Republican candidates backed by the Tea Party lost five Senate seats that, had they been contested by more moderate candidates, might have given the Republicans a majority in the upper chamber.
Obama said early yesterday that he had listened and learned in office. He specifically mentioned the need to reduce the country’s $16 trillion debt. It’s a sign he has heeded the deep-rooted fear of saddling future generations with insurmountable burdens, and leaving the country in hock to China. That fear runs across party lines.
The first big test of the ability of America’s divided government to at last address budget deficits and debt in a rational manner will come quickly. When partisan gridlock dented the US credit rating in 2011, Obama and the Republicans concocted a package of swingeing cuts so unpalatable to both, so likely to throw the US back into recession, that they believed themselves certain to reach a compromise before the January 1st, 2013, deadline. That hasn’t happened, and the deadline is looming.
The “fiscal cliff” will also test the glimmers of bipartisanship that shone through Romney’s and Obama’s speeches yesterday. Obama promised to “sit down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward” and to “reach out and work with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together”.
One sentiment I heard over and over on the campaign trail, from Democrats and Republicans alike, was revulsion at the partisan paralysis of the legislature. After an ugly, multibillion dollar campaign that exhausted and demoralised the country, it will be tragic if the parties still can’t work together.
In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes in September, Obama recalled the Senate Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell’s vow to make him a one-term president. “After the election, either he will have succeeded in that goal or he will have failed,” Obama said.
“Either way, my expectation is, my hope is, that that’s no longer their number one priority. And I’m hoping that after the smoke clears and the election season’s over, that spirit of co-operation comes to the fore.”
Obama’s wish for co-operation sounded naive in September. Before dawn yesterday , in the euphoria of his re-election, it suddenly felt possible. Surely, one thought, Republicans cannot devote another four years of politicking to the hatred of Obama.
Hopefully the president has learned some lessons, too. His failure to adequately explain and defend Obamacare helped the Republicans make his first term hell. The near disastrous first presidential debate of October 3rd was another example of an articulate and eloquent leader who was too weary or too detached to make the effort to communicate.
When asked by CBS last summer whether he had made mistakes in office, Obama admitted to one. It was, he said, the job of a president to “tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism”.
That is what he started to do yesterday morning.
* Lara Marlowe is Washington correspondent