Memo to Obama:

Be the mediator in chief

By Andrés Martinez

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 t may sound counterintuitive, Mr. President, but all you need to do after the midterm losses is dust off your original game plan and stick to it. Play the role of mediator in chief you sought to play and recommit to transcending petty politics and partisanship.

The American people didn’t hire you for your experience, your ideology, or your ability to connect as a drinking buddy. You were hired because you exuded a calm, lawyerly temperament and a pragmatic competence that American voters craved after eight years of George W. Bush and a spectacular financial meltdown.

During the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton’s campaign provocatively posed the question of who we’d want answering three a.m. calls to the White House during a national crisis. Right question, wrong answer—at least from Clinton’s perspective: voters thought you had the best temperament to take those calls.

Throughout your campaign—indeed, throughout your short political career—you pledged to level with us, to help us transcend the worst of our politics. At your inaugural, you called on Americans to set aside “childish things.” And who can forget your electrifying speech at the 2004 convention, extolling the pragmatic purpleness of most of America?

Your biography, professional training, and disposition make you a gifted mediator, with a knack for empathizing with, synthesizing, and ultimately reconciling conflicting worldviews and agendas. Reckless extremists like to portray you as an alien Bolshevik, but you have in fact steered a sensible middle course on the big issues of the day. You passed health care reform without a so-called “public option,” rescued the financial system without nationalizing major banks, and stepped up the war against terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Nevertheless, your presidency hasn’t gone as smoothly as planned. There are two reasons for this.

First, your team has at times lost sight of why it prevailed in 2008. Against a backdrop of breaking crises and shrill politics, you have sometimes deviated from the high-road, long-view serenity Americans found so appealing about you.

Second, effective mediation requires parties that—however belligerent and grudging they may be—are at least slightly open to mediation. Your most ardent supporters on the left have sometimes been problematic, but disciplined intransigence by the Republican congressional leadership has been far worse.

In order to overcome these problems, you must, first and foremost, hold on to your composure. At times, you’ve been rattled off your mediator perch, getting embroiled in petty brawls with Republican congressional leaders. Many on the left applaud this sort of thing, but it’s not what you set out to do and not why independents elected you. Good mediators don’t throw in the towel to step in the ring. Instead, you must keep tapping into our shades of purple.

Your team must likewise avoid getting knocked off its own perch. When shrill cable TV anchors complained that you needed to emote more over the oil spill in the Gulf (Show some anger! Do something already!), your advisers persuaded you to scrap an important tour of Asia. When Fox News began a demonization campaign against Shirley Sherrod, a Department of Agriculture official made to look like a racist by some dishonest video editing, your administration saw to it that she was fired.

Regaining the long road and high view also means cutting back on rhetorical bones that you might like to throw to labor and other activists (bashing business, for instance, or even the desire of college graduates to go make money). It makes you seem far to the left of where you really are and gives fodder to your Republican critics.

They’re your other problem. The intransigence of an opposition party unwilling to submit to mediation admittedly seems a tougher one to surmount. Republican leader Mitch McConnell has stated, after all, that the GOP’s priority is to avoid any collaboration that might get you reelected, and there is no reason to think that a party whose past obstinacy was just rewarded at the polls will become more cooperative anytime soon. (The recent tax compromise, where a crucial plank of the Republican platform was at stake, was likely an unusual case.) But don’t fall into the trap of lowering yourself to their level of partisan sniping. Now in control of one chamber in Congress, the Republicans will be held more accountable than in the previous two years, and presidents tend to fare well with the electorate when confronted with an obstructionist Congress led by the opposition.

Independent voters will tire of all-out Republican obstructionism if it coincides with three things: a recommitment on your part to transcend the smallness of partisan politics you have decried in the past (so no more snide remarks about John Boehner’s skin tone); a sincere effort to advance some policies that Republicans can embrace, at the risk of offending activist Democrats, especially in the effort to rein in future deficits; and an improving economy, which needs to be your overriding focus in the second half of your first term.

So, Mr. President, take a deep breath, and don’t read too much into last month’s midterm shellacking. This isn’t a parliamentary system; voters elect presidents using a different set of criteria than they use when electing a Congress. If you can get back to your original game plan—deploying pragmatism and wisdom to mediate between left and right to make the necessary tough decisions—voters will rehire you in 2012.

Photo: Getty Images"

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Andrés Martinez directs the Bernard Schwartz Fellowship Program at the New America Foundation. Previously he was the editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times.  
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