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President Obama's engagement with Republicans on jobs, health care and more may be a bow to political reality, but he can emerge from it stronger, not weaker. Moving ahead, though, he must see modern American politics with a clear eye, however much that disappoints his left-wing base. Here are three things for him to remember:
First, his need for Republican cooperation, at least in the Senate, gives him a chance to spearhead better legislation, not worse, and to attract more public support, not less. President Reagan showed in the 1980s that he could push through reforms – in Social Security, taxes, immigration and welfare—with a politically divided Congress and even one controlled by the Democrats. President Clinton worked with a Republican-controlled Congress in the 1990s to balance the budget and pass welfare reform and health care improvements.
Divided government can be a recipe for progress as often as stalemate. It gives the leaders of both parties the excuse to abandon the dreams of their extreme wings and move to the center to achieve bipartisan consensus. That's the place where Americans are most comfortable anyway.
Second, neither Obama's 2008 victory nor the Republicans' subsequent statewide victories in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts runs counter to the larger reality of modern American politics: In the post-Great Society period, Americans have become what you might call "raging incrementalists." They like their progress in bite-size pieces, and they are very suspicious of what they view as radical ideas to greatly expand or greatly reduce government. President Clinton learned that lesson with "Hillary Care," Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich learned it by forcing a government shutdown and proposing to dramatically cut taxes while cutting Medicare and Medicaid, and Obama may be learning it with health care reform. So, as he seeks GOP assistance on the economy and jobs, health care and climate, he should take it one step at a time.
Third, the more prosperity Obama can generate for the vast majority of Americans, the more popular he will be and, in turn, the more opportunity he will have to move his agenda through Congress. That's what Presidents Reagan and Clinton found when the economy began roaring in the mid-1980s and then in the mid-1990s, respectively. Obama's progressive wing may dream of single-payer health care and dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but average Americans worry far more about their stagnant living standards and the prospect that their children will not live as well as they did. Obama should focus on economic growth and jobs. If people start feeling better about their economic prospects, they'll start feeling better about him and his agenda.
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Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.