So now what? Prior to Tuesday’s vote, the electorate was frustrated with Washington’s inability to address the country’s most serious challenges. Voters responded by preserving the status quo: Democratic President Barack Obama was re-elected, Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives, Democrats still run the Senate. If a mandate can be gleaned from this year’s divisive campaign, it’s this: Work it out together.
The presidential race was closer than the Electoral College margin of roughly 100 votes indicates. Battleground states were decided by a few percentage points either way. Several U.S. Senate races were just as close. With the exception of Obama’s 2008 rout of John McCain, every presidential election since 2000 has been almost even.
Although the lives of most Americans have changed considerably over the past 12 years — many for the worse — the country itself is largely unchanged. Especially amid crushing unemployment and limited opportunity, we are a nation that is best-governed between the 40-yard-lines.
When D.C. has tracked too far to the left, as it did at the start of the Obama administration, voters have handed Republicans historic midterm gains. When candidates shift too far to the right, even reliably conservative states reject them and take their chances with someone slightly left of center. That happened this week, when Tea Party-backed U.S. Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock of Missouri and Indiana, respectively, went off the reservation in remarks about rape and abortion and cost themselves election. There’s a message here: Voters prefer some balance.
President Obama did not move to the center after the 2010 midterm elections; he doubled down on a progressive agenda amid economic suffering and ran an overwhelmingly negative re-election campaign. But his victory speech Tuesday night drew on the soaring optimism that characterized his run for president four years ago. Where has that been for the past two years?
Forward. That’s what Obama promised if voters saw fit to re-elect him. Economic growth. Jobs. Restrained deficit spending. For this to happen, Obama must be the unifying force he promised to be. He must be the leader Americans are longing for. It’s up to him to compel Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to sit down and find common ground.
If Democratic or GOP leaders see Tuesday’s vote as an affirmation of obstruction, they’re not paying attention. Shifts are taking place across the country, a cumulative rethinking of public policy that shows Americans increasingly recognize what works and what doesn’t. Voters in four states declared support for gay marriage. Prior to this year, gay marriage had failed at state polls 32 straight times dating back to 1998. This year, the cause was 4-0.
Meanwhile, voters in Washington state and Colorado decriminalized recreational use of marijuana, becoming the first states to do so. The feds’ war on drugs is a complete failure. It has turned millions of nonviolent Americans into convicted criminals and cost every level of government untold billions of dollars. Here, especially, Obama can show independence and respect for states’ rights. Washington and Colorado voters also backed Obama. Will he thank them by dispatching armed agents to enforce overreaching federal laws, as he has done in states that allow medical marijuana?
The answers to our biggest problems are not so simple. On the one hand, Americans increasingly want to be let alone by ever-growing government. Entire demographics are repulsed by the far-right socially conservative policies of Republicans as well as by the Nanny State, infantilizing interventions of the Left. On the other hand, we’re clearly not ready to support the entitlement reforms and austerity measures needed to balance the federal budget and cut the national debt.
The longer we delay solutions, the more painful they become for everyone. Our leaders have to work it out together. The country needs a plan to dramatically slow the growth of the $16 trillion national debt, and individuals and businesses need tax and regulatory certainty beyond one- or two-year horizons. We need a bipartisan blueprint for a decade of robust economic growth to return to full employment. We need a grand bargain — now.
A version of this editorial appeared Nov. 8 in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.