New WaPo op-ed: Obama can save America -- by declaring he won't run in 2012

It’s Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell, who were scorned as DINOs by many on the left for spending the last year crunching poll numbers and warning anyone who would listen that the party was headed for an unholy beating in November. Result: S&C 1, progressives 0. Now comes their new brainstorm: Yes, it’s quite possible that The One will win in 2012, but he’ll have to run a brutal, divisive scorched-earth campaign to do it. If he really wants to fulfill the Jesus-y political potential of Hopenchange and redeem America’s sins by forging a bipartisan consensus to tackle tough problems, he should announce that he’s bowing out to devote the next two years exclusively to finding solutions.

I like it instinctively.

We do not come to this conclusion lightly. But it is clear, we believe, that the president has largely lost the consent of the governed. The midterm elections were effectively a referendum on the Obama presidency. And even if it was not an endorsement of a Republican vision for America, the drubbing the Democrats took was certainly a vote of no confidence in Obama and his party. The president has almost no credibility left with Republicans and little with independents…

Obama can restore the promise of the election by forging a government of national unity, bringing business leaders, Republicans and independents into the fold. But if he is to bring Democrats and Republicans together, the president cannot be seen as an advocate of a particular party, but as somebody who stands above politics, seeking to forge consensus. And yes, the United States will need nothing short of consensus if we are to reduce the deficit and get spending under control, to name but one issue.

Forgoing another term would not render Obama a lame duck. Paradoxically, it would grant him much greater leverage with Republicans and would make it harder for opponents such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) – who has flatly asserted that his highest priority is to make Obama a one-term president – to be uncooperative.

And for Democrats such as current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) – who has said that entitlement reform is dead on arrival – the president’s new posture would make it much harder to be inflexible. Given the influence of special interests on the Democratic Party, Obama would be much more effective as a figure who could remain above the political fray. Challenges such as boosting economic growth and reducing the deficit are easier to tackle if you’re not constantly worrying about the reactions of senior citizens, lobbyists and public employee unions.

“If the president adopts our suggestion,” they conclude, “both sides will be forced to compromise.” What they’re pitching here, essentially, is the presidential version of what Kent Conrad said yesterday about politicians needing to be willing to sacrifice their jobs for the cause of fiscal solvency. And yet, I’m utterly confused as to how Obama making himself a lame duck would encourage others to follow him. This reminds me, in an odd way, of Obama setting July 2011 as the beginning of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan when he first ordered the surge. Once other powers in the region knew that we were inclined to leave, there was every incentive to dig in, hold on, and wait until we were gone. (Which, of course, is why the U.S. is now very quietly abandoning that plan.) This is the domestic political equivalent of that. Why would the GOP agree to entitlement reform in 2011 once their chances of taking it up in 2013 under a Republican president had suddenly increased dramatically? And why would Obama’s new posture make it drastically harder for Reid and Pelosi to hold out? Yes, there’d be more pressure on them given that the head of the party was suddenly demanding action, but all the usual suspects on the left — unions and outside groups and AARP, etc — would unite behind them and demand that the holy writ of Social Security and Medicare be defended at all costs. The symbolism of Obama’s withdrawal from the race to focus on fiscal solvency would, admittedly, be huge in communicating the gravity of the challenge in the most shocking way possible. But that doesn’t mean Congress would act on it.

What they’re really pining for here is a third-party presidency, beholden to no one on either side and therefore somehow uniquely capable of spurring the parties to action. But the effectiveness of a third-party president would depend on his/her political capital: Does he/she have overwhelming public support, such that the opposition would fear resisting? The answer in Obama’s case, by Schoen’s and Caddell’s own admission, is no. He’s “lost the consent of the governed,” in which case who’s going to be swayed by his table-pounding for swift, serious action? The Obama of 2008 might have had the mojo to make a dent there. The post-messianic Obama of 2010? Nah.

Update: I remember back in 2008, during the Democratic primaries, reading some lefty blogger frame the choice between Edwards and Obama as one between a guy who thinks structural problems would have to be addressed to change D.C. in a meaningful way versus a guy who thinks D.C. would suddenly change itself in admiration of his pure personal awesomeness. Schoen and Caddell, in their own way, are re-subscribing to that blinkered view of Obama’s personal significance. If only he does X, wonderful things will begin to flow! Except that they won’t — the unions will still be there, and AARP, and MoveOn, etc etc. And they’re much less afraid of challenging Barack Obama now than they were two years ago.

Update: Speaking of fantasies about a centrist third party saving America, see David Brooks’s column today. Salvation awaits…

The country is restive and looking for alternatives. And before the next round of voting begins, I suspect we will see another mass movement: a movement of people who don’t feel represented by either of the partisan orthodoxies; a movement of people who want to fundamentally change the norms, institutions and rigidities that cause our gridlock and threaten our country…

It will take a revived patriotism to motivate Americans to do what needs to be done. It will take a revived patriotism to lift people out of their partisan cliques. How can you love your country if you hate the other half of it?…

The coming movement may be a third party or it may support serious people in the existing two. Its goal will be unapologetic: preserving American pre-eminence. It will preserve America’s standing in the world on the grounds that this supremacy is a gift to our children and a blessing for the earth.