Time for the politics of problem-solving

As President Obama delivers his second inaugural address, he will be facing a country in dire need of leadership. Divided government reigned supreme in Washington last year, and the American people disapproved.

The postelection period — with a “fiscal cliff” deal that evaded the tough problems — doesn’t seem to offer much hope of improvement in 2013. But it’s not too late for leaders in Washington to embrace No Labels’s politics of problem-solving. In fact, with another brutal debt-ceiling fight shaping up in March, this approach offers the only hope for breaking the current cycle of governing from crisis to crisis.

The politics of problem-solving is really an attitude. It’s the willingness to sit down with anyone — conservative, liberal or anyone in-between — who’s willing to work with you to achieve real solutions.

This approach to politics requires our elected officials to embrace some timeless principles of leadership. 

First, leaders need to tell us the whole truth, and a great place to start would be our fiscal mess. To hear some on the right tell it, you’d think our deficit was driven by spending that started the day Obama entered office. Many Democrats seem to think rich tax dodgers are the ones busting our budget. The causes of our deficit run much deeper, and everyone in Washington knows it. Let’s talk about the real choices and trade-offs we need to get the government we want at a price we can afford.

Second, we need to govern for the future. From the Interstate Highway System to the Internet and GPS, Americans owe much of what we have today to farsighted decisions that our leaders made decades ago. We must start making decisions with the next generation in mind instead of the next election.

Third, we must put country ahead of party. Let’s face it: our representatives can’t reform the tax code, curb our deficit or fix our immigration system without infuriating their core supporters, including ones who write very big checks. Leaders need to be willing to make tough and sometimes unpopular choices — even risk defeat — to do what’s right.

Fourth, we have to be responsible. Today, both Democrats and Republicans routinely accuse the other of playing a “blame game.” But increasingly that’s the only game that anyone in Washington plays. It’s time for our leaders to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. 

And finally, we must work together. Throughout American history, the best and most durable solutions emerged when our leaders worked across the aisle. We needed both parties to pass civil-rights laws in the 1960s, reform our tax code in the 1980s and balance our budget in the 1990s. And we need it again today. 

Measured against the seemingly impossible challenges our leaders have overcome throughout our history, issues like reducing our budget deficit, reforming our tax code or rebuilding our infrastructure are hardly insurmountable — if we put solving problems ahead of scoring points. 

The politics of problem-solving is gaining resonance across the country, as evidenced by the 1,300 citizens who came to New York last week to attend No Labels’s Meeting to Make America Work! These citizens are just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Democrats, Republicans and independents who have joined our movement at NoLabels.org. Problem-solvers in Congress from both parties are stepping forward to work together. 

Despite our current difficulties, we are still as innovative, well-educated and hard-working as any nation on earth. Tomorrow can be better than today, and it will be — if Washington is willing to lead.

Galston is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. McKinnon served as a senior adviser to former President George W. Bush.