If there was ever a question about which commitment President Barack Obama has made in his life that will live beyond his presidency, it is his stubborn belief that a united America, without the distraction of division, can and will accomplish great things. Regardless of whether he is able to reach effective but difficult compromises with the Republican led House of Representatives over the next two to four years, he will always be remembered for the clarion call for unity he sounded in his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention. He doubled down on that plea early Wednesday morning, when, in victory, he addressed thousands of supporters in Chicago.
"I believe we can seize this future together," he said, "because we are not as divided as our politics suggest; we're not as cynical as the pundits believe; we are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions; and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America."House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) can take the stage and argue with the White House and the Senate majority over revenues and deficits and the fiscal cliff, but in the face of a voting public hungry for Washington to set aside its differences, it makes them and their caucuses seem small and petulant, mice in the face of the human sized task of serious governance. It is a task the president seems ready for.
Indeed, while many argue that the closeness of this election does not deserve the mandate moniker, when one looks at the gains and losses in Congress, there were more seats picked up in both houses by Democrats than by Republicans. Among the GOP casualties, Tea Party firebrands Allen West (R-FL) and Joe Walsh (R-IL) lost their races, and even the arch-conservative, former presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) barely survived her contest. It could be argued that were it not for Congressional redistricting by Republican led state houses across the country, the Democrats would have had an even bigger night.
Yet Speaker Boehner insists that nothing has changed. After the House victories, Tuesday night, he declared that returning the GOP majority to the Congressional body was a statement from voters. "The American people want solutions — and tonight, they've responded by renewing our House Republican majority," he told supporters. "With this vote, the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates."
Even at a press conference Wednesday afternoon, which many characterized as conciliatory, Boehner only referred to agreeing to revenue increases in the context of them being a benefit of tax reform - closing loopholes, simplification, etc. "By working together and creating a fairer, simpler, cleaner tax code, we can give our country a stronger, healthier economy," he said. "A stronger economy means more revenue, which is what the president seeks. [W]e are willing to accept some additional revenues, via tax reform."
And, he reiterated, "Feeding the growth of government through higher tax rates won't help us solve the problem."
McConnell similarly declined to embrace the results of the election, and the failure of his party to retake control of the Senate, as anything more than a chance for the president to "finish the job." In a statement reminiscent of his "legislative realities" trope of 2010, he challenged Obama "to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a closely divided Senate, step up to the plate on the challenges of the moment, and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office.
"To the extent he wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government, we'll be there to meet him half way."
Of course they will, if that center is farther right than the president is willing to go. Hey, Mitch. Here's a "legislative reality" for you - when you woke up this morning, you still weren't Majority Leader. Here's another one - President Obama doesn't have to agree to anything that renews all the Bush tax cuts, and it doesn't happen unless he signs it. He could, as many have suggested, just let them expire for everyone, and only sign a bill after the beginning of the year that retroactively cuts taxes to the 98% of Americans who make less than $250,000 a year.
I don't think it will go down that way, but it could.
See, for Republicans like Mitch McConnell, Speaker Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), the only unity they care about is the one that keeps their obstructionist bulwark strong. It never has been about unity. It's always been about power.
That's why people believe the president more than the Congressional leaders across the aisle. They believe him when he says, "I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together. We've got more work to do.
"The role of citizen in our democracy does not end with your vote. America has never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's the principle we were founded on."
So if you really care about our government, the president is saying, stay involved. That unity of purpose is our bulwark. We are, after all, a nation of and by the people, that works together for the people - all the people. If we can coalesce this much diversity to elect one man to the presidency, we are capable of coming together to do so much more.