Obama Finds New Model For Success

By closing 2010 with the kind of bipartisan compromise that was supposed to be the hallmark of his Administration, Obama showed that he is capable of change, and that there is hope he can achieve his goals

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Barack Obama holds a meeting with the President's Export Council on Dec. 9, 2010

Now he's the one who needs hope and change.

Barack Obama's unsettled presidency is presently tied to four interconnected projects: 1) bringing back the economy, 2) raising the standard of living of the nonwealthy, 3) fulfilling his remaining campaign promises, and 4) getting re-elected. The final three all depend primarily on the first, and making the economy grow is, to some degree, out of the President's control. Obama's political enemies think he is on track to achieve none of the four and are anticipating an overthrow in 2012.

But by closing 2010 with the kind of bipartisan compromise that was supposed to be the hallmark of his Administration, Obama showed that he is capable of change, and that there is hope he can achieve his goals.

To avoid seeing the economy stall again, the President needs to demonstrate to Washington and the nation that he will have a method of centrist governance when Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in January. This month's tax-deal success, bipartisan heartburn notwithstanding, can serve as a template. Here's a simple rule to guide the President: if a proposal is denounced by both Nancy Pelosi and Sarah Palin, it will probably find support in the center of the electorate.

The conditions that brought the White House and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to the negotiating table — the guns-to-their-heads imperative of expiring tax rates for every American on New Year's Day — won't exist on other issues in 2011. But the basic terms that got them to an agreement can be applied to a whole host of concerns. And both sides of the table now have exercised their cooperative muscles — and perhaps have built some trust and respect. The political nihilists on the right and the left cannot fathom or tolerate such deals. The notion of swallowing something that their opponents want is tautologically antithetical to their mind-set. But when John Boehner takes the Speaker's gavel, the tax deal is going to seem less like a one-off and more like a model.

Obama made the first big step toward real compromise by incorporating two elements that were distasteful to him, in the form of continued lower income-tax rates for the wealthiest and generous rates for the estate tax. When necessary, he can follow the same pattern of accepting the unwelcome with the essential to get deals on energy, immigration, education and, most important, deficit reduction.

As shrewd conservative commentators have pointed out, Obama got the kind of stimulus package he believes the country needs to keep up the momentum for growth, incorporating a lot of new spending and targeted tax breaks that Republicans can live with, even if they don't love them. In every area on which the President has an unfilled campaign promise, if both sides are willing to produce votes in Congress for grand bargains that contain elements they dislike, the country is going to see a lot of progress, including on the twin (and sometimes contradictory) goals of economic stimulus and deficit reduction.

Obama offered two memorable press-conference performances last week. In the first, he conveyed cranky annoyance with liberals for standing in the way of swift passage of the tax deal. In the second, after a private White House powwow with Bill Clinton, he abruptly abandoned the former President at the briefing room's podium, leaving the confident, compelling Clinton to play virtual President in support of the package. Not Obama's most distinguished moments, to be sure. But such tactical blips won't impede his strategy overall — for now.

Over time, this new Obama — the one who, out of necessity, is going to make deals with Republicans to fix the economy and get things done, rather than keep his wagon hitched to the liberal wing of his party — has a chance to have not only a liberated and happy holiday season, but also a 2011 filled with the fruits of a successful midcourse correction that has not yet been a part of his presidential repertoire. That's change the President can believe in.

One Nation, Halperin's politics column for TIME.com, appears every Monday.