During his first term, President Barack Obama faced a wicked problem: How do you govern in a highly polarized, evenly divided country with House Republicans who seem unwilling to compromise? Obama never really solved that one, and he was forced to pass his agenda on partisan lines (during the first two years) or not pass it at all (the final two).
Now re-elected with Republicans still in control of the House, Obama faces the problem again. Possibly the success of his second term rests upon his solving it.
Some on the left suggest he adopt a strategy of confrontation and conquest. The president should use the advantages of victory to crush the spirit of the Republican House majority, they say. Reject the Grand Bargain approach. Instead, take the country over the fiscal cliff. Blame it on the Republicans who are unwilling to even raise taxes on the rich. Wait until they fold, and then you will have your way.
The first thing to say about this strategy is that it is irresponsible. The recovery is fragile. Europe may crater. China is ill. Business is pulling back at the mere anticipation of a fiscal cliff. It's reckless to think you can manufacture an economic crisis for political leverage and then control the cascading results.
Second, it's terrible politics. Obama could probably triumph in a short-term confrontation, pushing through higher tax rates on the rich that wouldn't even produce enough revenue to cover a tenth of the deficit. But he'd sow such bitterness that it would be the last thing he'd pass for the rest of his term. The Republican House majority isn't going to magically disappear.
Finally, it misunderstands the state of the GOP. This is not the Republican Party of 2010. Today's Republicans no longer have an incentive to deny Obama victories. He's never running again. Most Republicans now understand they need to decontaminate their brand. They're more open to compromise, more likely to be won over with dealmaking than browbeating.
Obama and John Boehner have an incentive to create a low-decibel businesslike atmosphere.
Before he gets lost in the mire of negotiations, the president could step back and practically describe the task ahead. Between 1947 and 2007, the U.S. economy grew an average of 3.3 percent a year. But over the next few decades, according to forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office, it's projected to grow only at 2.3 percent per year. The task is to make the sort of structural changes to get America back on its old growth trajectory.
Then the president could remind everyone that there's lots to do, such as investing in infrastructure and basic research; reforming immigration to attract global talent; investing in student loans and community colleges; trimming the annual $1.1 trillion in tax loopholes, many of which go to corporations and the rich.
Other things the Republicans will surely relish doing: simplifying a tax code that has bloated to 74,000 pages; streamlining the Code of Federal Regulation that has metastasized to 165,000 pages; slowing entitlement spending.
But the point is, the only way to get things done in a divided, polarized country is side by side -- an acceptable Democratic project paired with an acceptable Republican one.
The fiscal-cliff talks are just the first chapter in this long process. In this first episode, the Democrats should get higher revenues from the rich (elections have consequences) and the Republicans should get some entitlement reform. But the main point is to lay the predicate for the bigger deals to come.
The economic crisis interrupted him last time, but Obama still has a chance to build a great middle-class economy. It'll take a dealmaker, not a warrior.
David Brooks is a syndicated columnist.