The partisan warfare this election season was bitter and prolonged, so elected officials may need a minute to bask in victory or lick the wounds of defeat. They should take a day or two. But the public, battered by economic crisis, fears a bleak future. So elected officials should stop using the nation's problems to score political points, and actually do something about them.
If Tuesday's election proved anything, it's that deep philosophical differences about the role of government have divided the public and its representatives. Those differences won't magically disappear, and there's nothing wrong with principled advocacy. What's missing in Washington is the spirit of compromise, greased by civility, that makes democracy work. To get it back, a few things need to happen.
First, Republicans have to stop trying to delegitimize President Barack Obama. He is not a Kenyan, or a socialist or some alien artifact of liberal guilt. He's the president of the United States and will be for the next four years. For the good of the nation, Republicans must accept that reality.
Second, they have to recognize that just-say-no obstructionism is both bad for the nation and a losing strategy. It's difficult to know why millions of people voted the way they did Tuesday, but it's clear they repudiated the decision of congressional Republicans to make denying Obama a second term their top priority. After a seemingly endless campaign in which unprecedented billions of dollars were spent, little has actually changed in Washington. Obama is still the president. Republicans are still in control in the House of Representatives. Democrats still have a majority in the Senate, and are still shy of the 60 votes needed to break Republican filibusters.
To get anything significant done, both parties are going to have to be willing to compromise. And there are big things that need doing. For instance finding a way to avoid the "fiscal cliff" of big tax hikes and indiscriminate spending cuts slated for January that could wreck the fragile economic recovery. Then there's spurring economic growth and job creation, rebuilding after superstorm Sandy, reforming the income tax code, fixing the broken immigration system, streamlining the military, improving the nation's economic prospects by investing in infrastructure and education, reducing the nation's reliance on foreign oil, and shoring up Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Obama should take the lead in genuinely working with Republicans, by offering concrete proposals that include concessions. But if the GOP continues to rebuff his overtures, he should use his bully pulpit to rally the public to demand action, something he's been inexplicably ineffective in doing. Now that he's free of the need to ever run for office again, his hand has been strengthened. He should make it clear he'll actively campaign in 2014 against any unrepentant obstructionists, and then do it. And he should be careful to avoid obstructionism on his own part, and squelch it in his own party. America needs a federal government that works.