Outside editorial: The Democratic mandate: Govern for all Americans

Posted: Sunday, November 09, 2008

The following editorial first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

If they're smart, President-elect Barack Obama and congressional Democrats will resist as much as possible the temptation to flex their new mandate muscles.

Democrats scored undeniably impressive victories nationwide on Election Day. Obama won a majority of the record 136 million votes cast, exceeding President Bush's tally of 2004.

In Pennsylvania, Obama earned about 55 percent of the vote, a higher percentage than any candidate in the last 65 years except President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. That's a clear mandate for the man about to become the nation's first black president.

Senate Democrats won at least six more seats, boosting their majority to 57. In the House, Democrats gained as many as 20 seats, increasing their margin over the GOP to 80.

It's the kind of success that's bound to make those in the majority a little giddy. And it's similar to the position Republicans were in only four years ago, before they blew it all by arrogantly ignoring the art of compromise.

In 2004, Bush won re-election and boasted that he intended to spend the capital voters had given him. Republicans increased their majorities in the House and Senate. Party leaders spoke of a permanent majority.

It took only two years for one-party rule to unravel. The GOP lost Congress in 2006, due to Bush's failed policies and lawmakers' fixation on serving themselves instead of the public. And now Republicans find themselves in the dwindling minority, virtually shut out of power.

In his victory speech on election night, Obama spoke of his desire to seek common ground when he takes office. "To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn - I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president, too," he said.

A good step would be to include Republicans in his Cabinet. The financial crisis and economic woes require solutions by the most talented people in the country, not just the most talented Democrats.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., an early supporter of Obama, likens this moment to 1964. President Johnson, who sought civil-rights legislation, enjoyed strong Democratic majorities in Congress. But Johnson tried to include Republicans throughout the process, rather than steamroll them, understanding that the result would be accepted by a broader segment of the public.

"That doesn't mean we're always going to agree, but we've got to try," Casey said. "Congress has to follow (Obama's) lead and do everything we can to be bipartisan."

There's also a practical consideration - Republicans still have enough votes in the Senate to block legislation. From energy policy to children's health insurance, from the recession to the war in Iraq, Obama will inherit a multitude of urgent challenges.

There will no doubt be those in the Democratic Party who want to start in January with long-awaited items from the progressives' wish list, such as enacting universal health care. With electoral success comes the tendency to overreach.

The search for solutions will be more productive if Obama and his party set a new tone of reaching across the aisle from the outset - and heed Obama's earlier words of there not being a red or blue America but a United States of America.

The test of a mandate is whether it's used judiciously to govern, or squandered.

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