By Douglas E. Schoen and Patrick H. Caddell
President Obama must decide now how he wants to govern in the two years leading up to the 2012 presidential election. In recent days, he has offered differing visions of how he might approach the country’s problems. At one point, he spoke of the need for “mid-course corrections.” At another, he expressed a desire to take ideas from both sides of the aisle. And before this month’s midterm elections, he said he believed that the next two years would involve “hand-to-hand combat” with Republicans, whom he also referred to as “enemies.”
It is clear that the president is still trying to reach a resolution in his own mind as to what he should do and how he should do it.
This is a critical moment for the country. From the faltering economy to the burdensome deficit to our foreign policy struggles, America is suffering a widespread sense of crisis and anxiety about the future. Under these circumstances, Obama has the opportunity to seize the high ground and the imagination of the nation once again, and to galvanize the public for the hard decisions that must be made. The only way he can do so, though, is by putting national interests ahead of personal or political ones.
To that end, we believe Obama should announce immediately that he will not be a candidate for reelection in 2012.
If the president goes down the reelection road, we are guaranteed two years of political gridlock at a time when we can ill afford it. But by explicitly saying he will be a one-term president, Obama can deliver on his central campaign promise of 2008, draining the poison from our culture of polarization and ending the resentment and division that have eroded our national identity and common purpose.
We do not come to this conclusion lightly. But it is clear, we believe, that the president has largely lost the consent of the governed. The midterm elections were effectively a referendum on the Obama presidency. And even if it was not an endorsement of a Republican vision for America, the drubbing the Democrats took was certainly a vote of no confidence in Obama and his party. The president has almost no credibility left with Republicans and little with independents.
The best way for him to address both our national challenges and the serious threats to his credibility and stature is to make clear that, for the next two years, he will focus exclusively on the problems we face as Americans, rather than the politics of the moment – or of the 2012 campaign.
Quite simply, given our political divisions and economic problems, governing and campaigning have become incompatible. Obama can and should dispense with the pollsters, the advisers, the consultants and the strategists who dissect all decisions and judgments in terms of their impact on the president’s political prospects.
Obama himself once said to Diane Sawyer: “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” He now has the chance to deliver on that idea.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama spoke repeatedly of his desire to end the red-state-blue-state divisions in America and to change the way Washington works. This was a central reason he was elected; such aspirations struck a deep chord with the polarized electorate.
Obama can restore the promise of the election by forging a government of national unity, welcoming business leaders, Republicans and independents into the fold. But if he is to bring Democrats and Republicans together, the president cannot be seen as an advocate of a particular party, but as somebody who stands above politics, seeking to forge consensus. And yes, the United States will need nothing short of consensus if we are to reduce the deficit and get spending under control, to name but one issue.
Forgoing another term would not render Obama a lame duck. Paradoxically, it would grant him much greater leverage with Republicans and would make it harder for opponents such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) – who has flatly asserted that his highest priority is to make Obama a one-term president – to be uncooperative.
And for Democrats such as current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) – who has said that entitlement reform is dead on arrival – the president’s new posture would make it much harder to be inflexible. Given the influence of special interests on the Democratic Party, Obama would be much more effective as a figure who could remain above the political fray. Challenges such as boosting economic growth and reducing the deficit are easier to tackle if you’re not constantly worrying about the reactions of senior citizens, lobbyists and unions.
Moreover, if the president were to demonstrate a clear degree of bipartisanship, it would force the Republicans to meet him halfway. If they didn’t, they would look intransigent, as the GOP did in 1995 and 1996, when Bill Clinton first advocated a balanced budget. Obama could then go to the Democrats for tough cuts to entitlements and look to the Republicans for difficult cuts on defense.
On foreign policy, Obama could better make hard decisions about Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan based on what is reasonable and responsible for the United States, without the political constraints of a looming election. He would be able to deal with a Democratic constituency that wants to get out of Afghanistan immediately and a Republican constituency that is committed to the war, forging a course that responds not to the electoral calendar but to the facts on the ground.
If the president adopts our suggestion, both sides will be forced to compromise. The alternative, we fear, will put the nation at greater risk. While we believe that Obama can be reelected, to do so he will have to embark on a scorched-earth campaign of the type that President George W. Bush ran in the 2002 midterms and the 2004 presidential election, which divided Americans in ways that still plague us.
Obama owes his election in large measure to the fact that he rejected this approach during his historic campaign. Indeed, we were among those millions of Democrats, Republicans and independents who were genuinely moved by his rhetoric and purpose. Now, the only way he can make real progress is to return to those values and to say that for the good of the country, he will not be a candidate in 2012.
Should the president do that, he – and the country – would face virtually no bad outcomes. The worst-case scenario for Obama? In January 2013, he walks away from the White House having been transformative in two ways: as the first black president, yes, but also as a man who governed in a manner unmatched by any modern leader. He will have reconciled the nation, continued the economic recovery, gained a measure of control over the fiscal problems that threaten our future, and forged critical solutions to our international challenges. He will, at last, be the figure globally he has sought to be, and will almost certainly leave a better regarded president than he is today. History will look upon him kindly – and so will the public.
It is no secret that we have been openly critical of the president in recent days, but we make this proposal with the deepest sincerity and hope for him and for the country.
We have both advised presidents facing great national crises and have seen challenges from inside the Oval Office. We are convinced that if Obama immediately declares his intention not to run for reelection, he will be able to unite the country, provide national and international leadership, escape the hold of the left, isolate the right and achieve results that would be otherwise unachievable.
Patrick H. Caddell, who was a pollster and senior adviser to President Jimmy Carter, is a political commentator. Douglas E. Schoen, a pollster who worked for President Bill Clinton, is the author of “How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System.”