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How Can Anyone Govern After This Campaign?

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

But even if Democrats insist that their attempt to discredit Romney is merely “payback” for 2004 or for the way some of the president’s critics have treated him during the past four years, the nature of the president’s re-election campaign is troubling given Obama’s rhetoric four years ago about changing the tone of politics and given the hope that so many people had that Obama would be a different kind of politician.

The sitting president of the United States, who started off as an inspirational symbol of something better, something different, is running a typical nasty attack campaign.

On one level, of course, it’s not unexpected. Given the state of the economy, Obama has decided to try to make the 2012 presidential election a referendum on Romney rather than on his own first term. If the president’s campaign discredits the GOP challenger, then Obama’s re-election is much more likely.

On another level, however, the strategy seems petty. And if you take a moment to think back to 2008, exactly what credentials did Obama have to be president, other than his rhetoric of hope and change and the fact that he was not from the incumbent party?

The one thing that is certain is that either Obama or Romney will be sworn in as president in January and will have to govern. But unless the nature of the campaigns changes dramatically between now and November — an unlikely development — the winner won’t have established much of a rationale for his term. Moreover, he will have contributed to the poisoned atmosphere in Washington, D.C., that will greet him.

Not surprisingly, the Romney message is that Obama has failed. Yes, the challenger’s campaign has an agenda, but it seems little more than the litany of worn-out buzzwords and slogans about taxes, spending and “big government” that we have heard for the past 25 years.

Trying to make the 2012 election a simple referendum about unemployment and economic growth certainly is Romney’s best strategy, but it doesn’t help him build support for an agenda if he wins.

Similarly, Obama’s effort to discredit Romney as a potential president is a good strategy, but it doesn’t position him to accomplish much during a second term. And if the president’s proposal on ending the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year is an indication, a second Obama term would be a regurgitation of proposals left over from the first term, hardly a hopeful sign given likely Republican control of the House next year.

Given both campaigns so far and the expected increase in both the volume and the meanness of attacks as Election Day approaches, November’s winner will be greeted by an opposition party disinclined to give the new president the benefit of the doubt on anything. This is particularly the case if Obama wins a second term, because Republicans in Congress will instantly be thinking about 2014 and Obama’s second midterm elections.

Of course, a re-elected Obama, unable to run again, could embrace the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan and truly try to bring the country together.

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