The stakes are too high, please get serious about governing before it's too late.
By Ted Van Dyk
As a lifelong Democrat, I have a mental picture these days of my president, smiling broadly, at the wheel of a speeding convertible. His passengers are Democratic elected officials and candidates. Ahead of them, concealed by a bend in the road, is a concrete barrier.
They didn't have to take that route. Other Democratic presidents have won bipartisan support for proposals as liberal in their time as some of Mr. Obama's are now. Why does this administration seem so determined to head toward a potential crash and burn?
Even after the embarrassing playout of the Obama-invented Great Sequester Game, after the fiasco of the president's Fiscal Cliff Game, conventional wisdom among Democrats holds that disunited Republicans will be routed in the 2014 midterm elections, leaving an open field for the president's agenda in the final two years of his term. Yet modern political history indicates that big midterm Democratic gains are unlikely, and presidential second terms are notably unproductive, most of all in their waning months. Since 2012 there has been nothing about the Obama presidency to justify the confidence that Democrats now exhibit.
Mr. Obama was elected in 2008 on the basis of his persona and his pledge to end political and ideological polarization. His apparent everyone-in-it-together idealism was exactly what the country wanted and needed. On taking office, however, the president adopted a my-way-or-the-highway style of governance. He pursued his stimulus and health-care proposals on a congressional-Democrats-only basis. He rejected proposals of his own bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission, which would have provided long-term deficit reduction and stabilized rapidly growing entitlement programs. He opted instead to demonize Republicans for their supposed hostility to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
No serious attempt—for instance, by offering tort reform or allowing the sale of health-insurance products across state lines—was made to enlist GOP congressional support for the health bill. It passed, but the constituents of moderate Democrats punished them: 63 lost their seats in 2010 and Republicans took control of the House.
Faced with a similar situation in 1995, following another GOP House takeover, President Bill Clinton shifted to bipartisan governance. Mr. Obama did not, then blamed Republicans for their "obstructionism" in not yielding to him.
Defying the odds, Mr. Obama did become the first president since Franklin Roosevelt to be re-elected with an election-year unemployment rate above 7.8%. Yet his victory wasn't based on public affirmation of his agenda. Instead, it was based on a four-year mobilization—executed with unprecedented skill—of core Democratic constituencies, and on fear campaigns in which Mitt Romney and the Republicans were painted as waging a "war on women," being servants of the wealthy, and of being hostile toward Latinos, African Americans, gays and the middle class. I couldn't have imagined any one of the Democratic presidents or presidential candidates I served from 1960-92 using such down-on-all-fours tactics.
The unifier of 2008 became the calculated divider of 2012. Yes, it worked, but only narrowly, as the president's vote total fell off sharply from 2008.
Other modern Democratic presidents have had much more success with very different governing strategies. In 1961-62, John Kennedy won Republican congressional and public support with the proposals of his Keynesian Council of Economic Advisers chairman, Walter Heller, to cut personal and business taxes "to get America moving again," and for the global free movement of goods, services, capital and people.
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson had Democratic congressional majorities sufficient to pass any legislation he wanted. But he sought and received GOP congressional support for Medicare, Medicaid, civil rights, education and other Great Society legislation. He knew that in order to last, these initiatives needed consensus support. He did not want them re-debated later, as ObamaCare is being re-debated now.
Johnson got bipartisan backing for deficit reduction in 1967, when he learned that the deficit had reached an unthinkable $28 billion. Faced with today's annual deficits of $1 trillion and federal debt between $16.7 and $31 trillion, depending on whether you count off-budget obligations, LBJ no doubt would appoint a bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission and use it to get a tax, spending and entitlements fix so that he could move on to the rest of his agenda. Bill Clinton took the same practical approach and got to a balanced federal budget as soon as he could, at the beginning of his second term.
These former Democratic presidents would also know today that no Democratic or liberal agenda can go forward if debt service is eating available resources. Nor can successful governance take place if presidential and Democratic Party rhetoric consistently portrays loyal-opposition leaders as having devious or extremist motives. We really are, as Mr. Obama pointed out in 2008, in it together.
It's not too late for the president to take a cue from his predecessors and enter good-faith budget negotiations with congressional Republicans. A few posturing meetings with GOP congressional leaders will not suffice. President Obama's hype about the horrors of fiscal-cliff and sequestration cuts, and his placing of blame on Republicans, have been correctly viewed as low politics. His approval ratings have plunged since the end of the sequestration exercise.
But time is running out for Democrats to get serious about governance. That concrete barrier—in the form of the 2014 midterm—lies just ahead on the highway, and they're joy riding straight toward it.
Mr. Van Dyk served in Democratic national administrations and campaigns over several decades. His memoir of public life, "Heroes, Hacks and Fools," was first published by University of Washington Press in 2007.