Politicians by their nature are often schizophrenic. This schizophrenia is a product of juggling two different, often antithetical, roles: the role of candidate and the role of elected official. The candidate is all about the campaign, and the campaign is about victory over an opponent. The role of the elected official is governing, and governing in our system is usually about compromise and cooperation.
Most of Washington has the campaigning part down; the governing part, however, leaves much to be desired. It’s easy to see why Washington has been heavy on the campaign and light on the governing: campaigning is the easy part.
Governing, unlike campaigning, requires cooperation and compromise. We don’t have a parliamentary style of government where the prime minister and his ruling party simply get what they ask for. Governing is the hard work; it is also what the American people expect their elected officials to do.
Announcing you are no longer going to be a candidate is often the most liberating event for an elected official. No longer a slave to the constant campaign, elected officials who announce they are not running for another term are free to concentrate on the work of governing. It is easier to compromise and cooperate with your counterparts in the other party if you no longer consider them your opponents. It is also easier to compromise and cooperate without fear of retribution from your political base.
President Barack Obama doesn’t have to decide not to run for another term — the Constitution decided for him. Obama can now focus on governing — but he has to choose to do so.
Over the last few weeks, we have seen two Obamas. First, we got a glimpse of Obama the elected official: inviting House and Senate Republican leaders to dine with him to discuss how we can forge a grand bargain and avoid the looming fiscal crisis caused by runaway deficits and mountains of federal debt. Just days later, however, we saw Obama the candidate: hosting a $50,000-a-head dinner for Organizing for Action — a group headed up by former Obama campaign staffers.
This is the political schizophrenia you expect from a first-term president, not a second term president focused on his legacy.
Indeed, Obama must decide what his legacy will be — cooperation and compromise with Republicans that leads to solutions to the serious challenges we face as a nation or an endless political campaign?
Obama could roll the dice. Hope to make political history in the midterms. Hope that the Democrats maintain or expand their margins in the Senate, and hope that they can pick up enough seats to flip the House — something that has never happened in the midterm elections of a second-term presidency. If Obama gets the perfect political storm, then he would have a freer hand to pass his agenda in the final two years.
If Obama chooses campaign over cooperation and fails — and history suggests strongly that he will — then what? How can Obama expect Republicans to work with him after six years of nonstop campaigning against them?
Waiting isn’t an option. We face serious challenges as a nation. Challenges that cannot wait to be dealt with. Challenges that we cannot afford to “roll the dice” on.
We have a debt and deficit crisis that grows deeper every single day. We have an economy that continues to struggle: Unemployment hovers at near 8 percent, and far too many Americans are unable to make ends meet. We have out-of-control health care costs and an overly complex tax code that makes American businesses uncompetitive in the global marketplace. We need a comprehensive strategy for energy independence, one that protects our fragile environment while at the same time protecting American workers. We have a crumbling infrastructure and an education system that is leaving far too many children behind.
None of the challenges will simply go away on their own, and another political campaign cycle will not get us any closer to common-sense solutions to this myriad of issues.
There are members of both parties who want to end the constant campaign cycle, who want Washington to get back to the work of governing. If Obama chooses cooperation and compromise over constant campaigning, he will find willing partners in both parties and in both chambers.
President Obama, the choice is yours.
Former Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, is president of the Republican Main Street Partnership.