Messy But Important Fiscal Cliff Negotiations Loom

Obama, Republicans will have to find middle ground, or both sides agree America will suffer.

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Newly re-elected President Obama is doing the right thing by reaching out swiftly to both his allies and adversaries in Congress to prevent the government from falling off the "fiscal cliff," Democratic and Republican strategists say.

What's needed is also a new spirit of maturity and compromise on the part of everyone involved, but those qualities have been scarce in recent years.

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The pessimists say Tuesday's election did little to change this dynamic because voters reaffirmed the status quo: Obama stays in the White House, the Democrats keep control of the Senate, and the Republicans retain control of the House.

The optimists say the alternative to compromise on the fiscal cliff is too unpalatable for even Washington's warring factions to accept. Failure to compromise would mean that a combination of tax increases and severe spending cuts would start to be phased in, by law, on January 1.

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All sides agreed to this scenario many months ago when there was a widespread expectation that the nation's political leaders would reach an accommodation that would avoid the mess we're now in. That compromise hasn't happened. And now the government seems to be on the brink of a debacle, which could lead to a recession and massive job losses if nothing is done.

Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, told me: "A big part of leadership is saying no to some of your strongest allies and saying yes to some of our fiercest critics without sacrificing your principles." Duberstein said President Reagan had a motto when it came to negotiating with Congress: If you can get 80 percent of what you want, take it, rather than risking everything by holding out for 100 percent. That's the approach Obama and the legislators should take now, Duberstein says.

[ENJOY: The U.S. News Collection of Fiscal Cliff Cartoons]

Obama's aides say the election amounted to a mandate for increasing taxes on the wealthy, a longtime Obama goal. But the president says he is open to many options. House Speaker John Boehner is also sounding conciliatory so far, saying that majority House Republicans won't accept tax-rate hikes but might consider revenue increases by closing loopholes and ending or reducing some tax breaks.

It's all very complicated, but solving such problems is what Americans hire their president and their lawmakers to do.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook or Twitter.