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Reducing the Good Will Deficit

Obama needs to phone some Republicans.

11:00 PM, Nov 4, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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Press reports say President Obama didn't watch election returns on Tuesday. And while he didn't get any "3 a.m. phone calls" about the results, I am sure at some point he heard the results and was not too happy when he did.

Voters whooped Democrats and Barack Obama in two key gubernatorial match-ups this week. Many will draw their own lessons from last Tuesday's thumping in Virginia and New Jersey, but one thing is clear--voters are leery of extreme partisanship, the kind that governs from one side of the aisle; the kind of behavior--despite promises to the contrary during the 2008 campaign--we've witnessed from President Obama and the Democrats in Congress all year.

Voters were indiscriminant. They took out a Democrat incumbent (Corzine in New Jersey) and overwhelmingly voted Republican in a state that had twice prior elected Democratic governors and backed Barack Obama in 2008 (Virginia).

The message: governing in a partisan manner creates a sea of ill will--anger that could drown the Democratic majority in Congress in next year's midterm elections.

What lessons will the White House learn from these political setbacks? It's probably too late to change course on health care, but how about a fresh approach on the budget next year?

The president and his team recognize the potency and dangers of the budget situation. The Washington Times reported earlier this week the White House has sent a number of signals suggesting it understands the gravity--both politically and economically--of the rising tide of red ink.

The budget deficit is "going to have to come down," Treasury Secretary Geithner said on Meet the Press last Sunday. "Now it's too high and I think everybody understands this."

The U.S. fiscal outlook indeed has significantly deteriorated in the past year--a principal reason behind the rising tide of voter distress. As Senator Judd Gregg noted recently, "The budget that they [the Obama Administration] sent here, has a trillion dollar deficit every year for the next ten years and raises the public debt of this country from 40% of GDP to 80% of the GDP." These numbers are unsustainable. One party can no longer address them unilaterally. Attempting it alone will result in political disaster. So no one even tries.

This is where the "other" deficit matters. Call it "the good will gap." Like the budget deficit, it's expanding exponentially. A permanent campaign mentality contributes to the chasm. Each side waits for the other to make an unpopular policy choice; then they pounce. Threats of 30-second attack ads become a deterrent to necessary action.

So is it possible our fiscal problems now outstrip the political system's ability to solve them? Many think that's the case. "It's both depressing and scary," the head of a business trade association told me. "I think we have a long and dark road ahead until someone realizes that our current system is just plain broken."

A Senate leadership aide agreed. "The process we're going through on health care is creating more, not less divisiveness." He told me certain types of legislation--like reining in big budget deficits or reforming the health care system--just can't be done in a partisan manner. "This president had a chance to build good will, but he wasted it. It's not there anymore." Health care may pass, he told me, but it will further divide, not heal, polarized wounds.

They are both right. So here's an inconvenient truth the Obama administration has yet to get its arms around. And maybe Tuesday night's results will help drive home the message: Addressing the budget deficit requires first closing the good will gap. Unfortunately we've traveled nearly a decade in American politics without that kind of détente.

George H.W. Bush did it by forging bipartisanship on foreign policy. Bill Clinton did it on the budget. George W. Bush worked with Democrats on education reform. Sometimes a crisis like the September 11 terrorist attacks can refuel an empty tank.

Yet while Barack Obama spoke about forging bipartisanship more than any candidate in recent history, his presidency has only expanded the good will gap.