The conventional wisdom these days is that Washington is "broken." It seems to have started with Vice President Joe Biden, back in February of last year: "Washington right now is broken," he told CBS News. "I've never seen it this dysfunctional." He was reacting to the recent election of Scott Brown, who gave the Republicans the crucial 41st vote to slow down the Democratic majority in the Senate—which had passed the massive healthcare reform bill and billions in stimulus spending. A few months later, President Obama said that his administration had delivered "the most progressive legislative agenda" in generations. He was right. In 2009 and 2010, Washington was a well-oiled machine for the Democrats, who controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House. From their point of view, it wasn't "broken" until they lost that 60th vote. [Read Mary Kate Cary, Mort Zuckerman, and other U.S. News columnists in U.S. News Weekly, now available as an iPad app.]
By the 2010 midterm elections, things began to change. Voters supported Tea Party candidates in a historic sweep of the House. Republicans began to put the spending brakes on, but the president seemed to have a tin ear to it all. He didn't sense that the ground was shifting, that Americans were starting to get uncomfortable. He plowed ahead with a federal budget with massive "investments" that didn't get past the Democratic Senate, ignored the Simpson-Bowles commission's recommendations in his State of the Union address, and failed to propose his own plan in the debt-ceiling negotiations. Instead, he put himself at the mercy of congressional negotiators, as he had with the stimulus and healthcare bills. It's no surprise the markets have reacted the way they have. Like many of us, they too sense a growing disconnect between Washington and Main Street. [See an opinion slide show of 10 wasteful stimulus projects.]
In downgrading the nation's credit rating, Standard & Poor's sparked a global sell-off. It also stated what everyone already thought was true: that the debt-limit agreement "falls short" of what is necessary, and that the "effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions" are no match for the economic challenges we face. The White House should have gone big and recognized the huge opportunity the downgrade statement offered. Instead, it went small—and chose to attack S&P's credibility and reputation. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
I know it's easier to sit on the sidelines than to be in the hot seat at the White House, but my advice would have been to react to the S&P statement by agreeing with it in the same news cycle. The president should have immediately concurred that the debt deal wasn't enough, and then seized the opportunity. He should have called the congressional leadership back from vacation and reopened negotiations on creating jobs, cutting spending, lowering the corporate tax rate, and reforming entitlements. Put the Grand Bargain back on the table. Doing so would have sent the message that Washington is still interested in being effective, stable, and predictable. It would have elevated the president—and the congressional leadership joining him—above all the attacking and dishonesty.
While he was at it, Obama could have said a few words about the recent death of former Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, whom former President George H.W. Bush said was a "man of great principle," yet a leader who "could always find a way to work with those who disagreed with him." [See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]
But he took a different tack: In his press conference, Obama called on congressional leaders to stop drawing "lines in the sand," meaning that they need to stop standing up for their principles. It would have been better if he had called on principled lawmakers to find a way to work with those with whom they disagree, as Hatfield had.
He could have demanded an end to all the name-calling, in which opponents have been labeled "insane" and from the "dark side," serving "sugar-coated satan sandwiches" and ending "life as we know it" on this planet. Calling your political opponents "terrorists" waging "jihad on the American people," as some have done lately, is an attack on one's patriotism. That's got to stop.
And he could have invoked the moment when Gabby Giffords walked on the House floor to vote for the debt deal, with the words he spoke at the memorial service for the other victims of the attack that nearly killed her. "Let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy—it did not—but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud." [Vote now: Who won the debt ceiling standoff?]