This nation is badly split. The presidential election this cycle accurately reflects the acrimony and small-ness that pervades our political perceptions. As we perseverate over minutiae, our country languishes in self-imposed malaise and our economy teeters on the brink of disaster. What makes the hyperpartisanship worse is the fact that the country is split almost 50/50 on either side of the divide.
Does any of us really believe that this will change after the 2012 election? It is unrealistic to think (just as it was in 2008) that we will magically rally around our president and our congress to tackle the major issues of our time. Given the likely divided nature of our government, and the definitely divided nature of the electorate, the American public can look forward to more fiddling while Rome burns even under the term of the next president.
It is a common theme in presidential politics that first term presidents often “pivot” to the political center in order to buff their chances for re-election, while second-term presidents are “unleashed” from those concerns to return to their idealogical base.
However, Mr. Romney has made too many promises and sold too much of his political capital to the far right of his party to credibly govern as a compromising moderate if he wins. During his first term, President Romney would need to burnish his credentials as a bona fide conservative in order to convince his base (who is luke warm on him currently) that he is not deserving of a primary challenge. While President Romney would no doubt vanquish such a challenge, it would be the ultimate pyrrhic victory and likely fatally wound his re-election campaign. Thus, shortly after election we can realistically expect a lurch to the right from President Romney, which would likely worsen gridlock (without a senate supermajority) and increase the shrill tones of partisan debate.
President Obama, for all of his soaring rhetoric, has not shown a tremendous aptitude for bipartisan leadership and unification of the electorate. While there may be many reasons for this, it is safe to say that a fair portion of the blame can be laid at his own feet. As an “unleashed” lame duck president, the right wing warns, he would be free to turn sharply to the left and lead as the unabashed liberal that he inclines to be. This would also serve (with a Republican house) to worsen gridlock and partisanship.
Lest we get too depressed, there is a glimmer of hope in these scenarios, and it comes from the unlikeliest of sources–President Clinton. In 2008, it was clear that President Bill Clinton was smarting from the rough and tumble primary contest between his wife Hillary and Mr. Obama. He was scarce on the campaign trail, and reticent with his endorsements. In 2012, however, President Clinton gave a tremendous speech at the Democrat’s convention, and has been full-throated in his endorsement of the current president. It is widely assumed that he is playing nice within the party to help ease Hillary’s (unopposed?) march to the Democratic nomination in 2016. It is conceivable, and even likely, that in exchange for the badly needed enthusiastic endorsement, President Obama has agreed to throw the full weight of his personality, and his office, behind Hillary’s presumed run in 2016.
President Clinton’s endorsement of Obama has held real value in this cycle. And in return, President Obama will need to give Hillary something of real value back. In a very real sense, then, he will not be able to lead as the unleashed liberal that he is, taunting Republicans with brinksmanship at every turn. Such a term would be considered a failure, and a failed President’s endorsement and party would hold no value. In that situation all he could deliver to Hillary was his base, a consituency she arguably is more comfortable with than he is. He will be forced, for her sake and due to promises made, to govern and lead through unification and compromise, in order to win over the middle ground of American politics, the independent voter.
There is good reason to believe that Mr. Romney’s first term would be reminiscent of an “unleashed” second-term president, whereas Mr. Obama’s second term would be more reminiscent of an accountable first-term president. Given the choice, I prefer a president who feels accountable and motivated to move to the middle any day.