In terms of presidential decision-making—certainly in domestic politics–the next seven weeks may well prove to be the most important of the entire eight years of the Obama Presidency. We will observe whether Obama has learned how to govern or whether we are in for more of the same. It also will present a very stern test for Speaker John Boehner as to whether he intends to lead the GOP into a position of being a loyal opposition or whether he will concede—and he knows in his heart that is what he is doing—the future of the Republican Party to the obstructionists or the Tea Partyers: Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Senator Jim DeMint, and Senator-elect Ted Cruz.
The ability of the President to lead in the wake of his victory on Tuesday as well as his experiences during his first term will be put to the test as he addresses the current economic and political fiscal cliff. The President knows he now has one shot. This is a unique opportunity with general enthusiasm and public goodwill behind him after his victory. He must show the country and the Congress that he can lead and not follow; that he understands that he is not a lawyer dealing with a client; and that he has mastered the art of compromise. If he succeeds, this could well be his historical moment.
Obama did not properly lead on healthcare, where he let Congress toss the ball around for months on end. He got the legislation passed but it was almost despite himself. The Affordable Health Care Act will never be studied as a model of presidential leadership. In fact, to date, he has not demonstrated to the nation and the Congress that he can lead. Leading must be much more than winning and Obama now has the chance.
The President needs to lay down some markers and demand that Boehner do so as well. He needs to use the media and the bully pulpit but not embarrass the Speaker. If so, he has every right to demand that Boehner produce as well. They both can then emerge with a compromise. They can both alienate segments of their parties; neither will win; but the legislation will become law. The new Congress will then arrive and President Obama will be able to begin much of the entitlement reform, tax code review, immigration reform, etc., that he wants to address in his second term. Boehner will savor the prize that he saved his Republican Party to fight another day.
The Speaker may not be the most intelligent or the most politically savvy person to hold the job, but he read the results from Tuesday. Unless he facilitates through political compromise and genuine bi-partisanship a proper resolution to this economic crisis together with the President, the Republican Party that will be left standing will never be able to gain a mandate to govern the United States of the 21st Century.