History's judgment of a president frequently hinges on a few significant decisions. Barack Obama has the opportunity to make one that can ensure his legacy.
He already has a number of legislated accomplishments that should reflect well on him down the road: the Affordable Care Act, economic stimulus, Dodd-Frank and support for gay rights. Most were, however, largely accomplished during his first two years — when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
That, of course, is no longer the case. Republicans captured the House of Representatives during the midterm election and retain control as the president begins his second term. This cemented the polarization that has both the right and left pushing their parties away from the center and into more extreme positions.
Polarization almost caused a financial crisis as the government struggled to reach a compromise on the fiscal cliff in early January. But a compromise was reached, which many see as a victory for the president. That may not be the case. There was an increase in tax rates but not as extensive as the White House wanted. There were no large budget cuts, but these will be revisited as Congress once again debates an increase in the debt limits.
The president has said that vote will be non-negotiable, but it is hard to see how that could be, even with House Republican leaders recently offering a three-month reprieve on the ceiling. A positive congressional vote is necessary to avoid a new crisis, and Republicans may well be able to block that vote without substantial budget concessions. If this happens, future White House economic initiatives will be challenged, delayed or defeated.
Achieving concessions may further embolden an extreme minority to challenge any new proposals as well. For example, will there be any chance of passing a reasonable gun control law?
Is there a way to avoid a stalemate that could go on for the next four years and prevent any chance of accomplishing a significant legislative agenda? The answer is "yes" and it can be described in one word: triangulation.
The term is popularly attributed to a political shift that helped Bill Clinton win re-election in 1996 when he, too, was faced with a conservative Congress. The concept is simple: Instead of moving to a polar view on the left as your opponents move to the right, you co-opt the center and adopt everyone's best ideas.
The majority of Americans generally describe themselves as having middle-of-the-road views rather than those held by the far right or left. If he triangulates and moves to the middle, President Obama has the opportunity to attract public support for his agenda and gain votes from moderate Republican lawmakers. In short, there is a much better chance of breaking the stalemate and winning compromises that can serve the country well.
What does the president gain from this? He can concentrate on ensuring that programs like the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are solid and well financed for the foreseeable future and guarantee the protection of vulnerable beneficiaries, which is really what the social contract is all about. Additionally, by taking the middle ground the administration can focus the discussion on long-term fixes as opposed to immediate budget cuts. Because the economic recovery is still sluggish, short-term cuts now could push us back into recession.
The timing is right. The president's second term has just begun. He is preparing his State of the Union address and will have the bully pulpit. An olive branch and a middle-ground agenda could get the attention of moderates in both parties.
Without it, the picture going forward is not pretty. With the debt ceiling back on the table soon, some on both sides of the aisle are spoiling for a fight. That fight could stall the political process for the next four years.
If he fails to take this middle ground, he may well lose additional House and Senate support in the next midterm election and find himself faced with legislation, maybe veto-proof, which makes these programs less effective.
But with a move to the middle, he can protect and strengthen important programs. Both sides can win part of what they want, and that is a good thing. Then, with help from a moderate coalition, he may be able to successfully address other problems facing the country, perhaps even immigration.
This is one of those legacy decisions. The president should act now. America will be the better for it.
Richard Meyer is a professor emeritus in the College of Business at the University of South Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.