In July, USA Today and Gallup asked Americans to rank their "top priorities" for the next president. Number nine on that list was "overcoming political gridlock in Washington." Number two was "reducing corruption in the federal government." Yet neither issue even made it onto either candidate's campaign website, and for obvious reasons. For Obama to complain about gridlock would reinforce Romney's charge that he couldn't work with Congress. For either to even mention the way money has corrupted American politics would be to invite the inevitable charge of hypocrisy, as both candidates worked hard to inspire others to support their own super PACs.
So it's understandable that these issues were invisible before November 6. But Election Day has passed. If we're to move forward, as the Obama campaign told us we would, Obama now needs to seize the opportunity his victory has given him to take up that fight -- and win.
For it is even clearer today than it was in 2008 that unless we fix political gridlock and corruption the capacity of America to govern will be at an end. The partisanship of American politics is worse than at any time since Reconstruction. The role of special interests in funding elections is worse than at any time since the Gilded Age. If these flaws are not fixed, America will not move forward. Yet Americans are desperate for them to be fixed, because we're desperate again for a government that might work.
There are three steps this president must take now, each reflecting an aspect of his extraordinary talents.
First, Obama the teacher must show us just how bad things have become. He should draw his lesson from the work of the most important scholars of Congress today, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, whose latest book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, details the incredibly depressing story of just how broken the legislature is.
And in teaching that story, he needs precisely Mann and Ornstein's courage, to assign responsibility where responsibility lies. It is the Republicans who have broken the system our Framers gave us, by embracing a sort of militant minority-ism that might work with parliaments but only destroys the capacity of constitutional democracies with separation of powers to function. Obama must rally America to the idea that such intransigence is wrong. That the permanent war of Washington is wrong. And that Congress must learn to work together to address the problems the nation demands be solved. That means to reverse the norms that Newt Gingrich initiated, so as to get Congress to work again. Let members hang out with the enemy -- i.e., members from the other party. Let them have weekend paintball battles. But demand that they learn how to listen and compromise -- recognizing that no extreme defines America, and that they work for America.