In 1993, Bill Clinton took office and raised taxes. He had promised Americans a middle-class tax cut, but by the time of his inauguration it was clear that the smart route to prosperity was to reduce the federal government's debt and deficits, not grow them with a tax cut.
So Clinton did the right thing, drew down his political capital, spent a time in political hell—then sailed to re-election on the wings of a strong American economy.
There is an analogy here for Barack Obama. Not on the economic side—the new president will find supportive majorities in favor of his campaign promise to cut taxes and boost federal investment in this recession.
I'm talking about Iraq.
Obama will take the oath of office some two years after he entered the Democratic primaries as the antiwar candidate, promising to put a quick end to America's bloody and incredibly expensive involvement in that seemingly endless war.
Now he needs to consider, like Bill Clinton did in 1993, whether events have overtaken him.
As Obama liked to say on the campaign trail, the U.S. needs to get out of Iraq with all the care and planning and smarts it did not display when getting in. And that may require that he reconsider his promise of a quick withdrawal.
I'm one who believes that the end-the-war voices on Capitol Hill—impressively endorsed by the voters in 2006—played an essential "bad cop" role in persuading Iraqis that the American commitment was not open-ended, and that Iraq had better take the necessary steps toward self-governance. The "good cops" were General Petraeus and the surge of U.S. soldiers, supported by President Bush, John McCain, and others. Together, the good and bad cops have encouraged real improvement in Iraq.
It may be that, after careful reflection, President Obama will conclude that the Iraqis need more tough love, and he'll start bringing our troops home (or, more accurately, free them for duty in Afghanistan or elsewhere) at a rapid pace.
But it's essential that Americans, especially liberals and Democrats, give Obama room for that careful reflection. And, should he and the pragmatists on his national security team conclude that the progress in Iraq is valuable but fragile, and needs a continued strong American presence, we should cut him the necessary slack.
I'm no believer in the neocon fantasy that a democratic, civil Iraq is going to be a beacon in the region, nudging other nations toward freedom and light and tolerance. If that were true, Lebanon and its neighbors would be far different places today. So would those other Muslim "democracies"—Pakistan and Egypt and Afghanistan and Iran.
But, whether they supported Bush's war or not, Americans need to recognize that, having invaded a country, wrecked a society, and cost tens of thousands of casualties, we have a moral responsibility—if as nothing more than fellow human beings—to help the Iraqis find their way out of this. If we can. If they will let us.And, yes, we need to respect the sacrifices made by our military men and women and their families. We cherish them. They are citizen-soldiers of a great tradition, who have served with high honor. Without forfeiting our own skepticism, we owe it to them to listen if they tell us that they've cleared a road to success, if only we can summon the commitment to keep marching.
The press, and many conservative critics, may cry "Nyah, nyah, nyah—Obama, admit you were wrong. You've broken your solemn promise to withdraw." That is unavoidable and, perhaps, fair. America should not make a habit of electing presidents that promise peace and, after taking office, give it war.
On the other hand, I listened to Obama quite carefully in the last 18 months, and heard him offer enough serious and practical qualifications to his bring-them-home pledge that I won't feel too betrayed if the pace of the U.S. withdrawal fails to meet his campaign timetable. The left-wing netroots and cable TV commentators will surely howl. But more is at stake here than page views and ratings.
It is ironic that one of the few American leaders to oppose this tragic episode at its start may make the call to extend it at its end. But we elected Obama, in no small part, because we respected the clear and independent thinking shown in his initial opposition, and we should respect those qualities now, as he charts the course to get us home.